Its fitting that President Obama was on an overseas trip on the 3rd Anniversary of his signature achievement, ObamaCare. Presidents often recede into foreign policy in their second terms. At some point in a second term, the political fortunes of allies start to diverge from those of the lame-duck President. As their domestic policy opportunities fade, Presidents throw themselves into foreign policy, where the stature of the Office continues to hold influence around the world. President Obama looks to be forced into this position sooner than any other modern President.
President Obama has already experienced a faster drop in the polls than any modern second-term President. In the immediate wake of his reelection, Gallup found Obama with a nearly 60% approval rating. Last week, his approval rating was just 46%. At this point after his reelection, even George W Bush had a 52% approval rating, and his reelection was much more closely contested.
Poll numbers, however, can change quickly, based on outside events. His current approval rating is within the range of where it was through most of his first term. Voters seem to embrace Obama more warmly when he’s campaigning, rather than when he’s governing. It isn’t just his poll numbers, then, that jeopardize his domestic agenda. It is the simple fact that, increasingly, his allies on Capitol Hill are willfully ignoring him.
Consider these recent developments on major issues:
1. Guns. In the wake of the Newtown shooting, President Obama launched an aggressive push for sweeping new guns laws. He utilized every tool of the White House PR operation and identified and promoted three measures; an assault weapons ban, a limit on magazines and universal background checks. He mobilized his campaign operation to advocate for the measures. Today, however, Obama’s agenda lies in tatters on the Senate floor. Each of his proposals were stripped out of the final gun bill by Democrat Majority Leader Harry Reid. Some expansion of background checks may survive, but Obama’s broad, “universal” checks appears dead.
When Reid removed the assault weapons ban from the legislation, he said there weren’t 40 votes for it in the Senate. There are 55 Democrats in the Senate. For many of them, their political interests are not aligned with Obama’s policy goals.
2. Budget. Both the House and the Senate have passed their respective budget proposals. The two chambers will now meet to see if they can reach a deal on a full-year budget. President Obama, however, has yet to submit his formal budget request to Congress. The President’s budget ordinarily begins the budget talks on Capitol Hill. The delay of his budget is the longest since the budget process was revamped in 1921. It also suggests that he may little more than an observer to the budget talks.
This view is strengthened by an underreported event during Congress’ budget work. Even though it hadn’t submitted a budget plan, the Obama Administration did request Congress to include specific additional funds to implement parts of ObamaCare and financial services regulation. Neither chamber, including the Dem controlled Senate, honored that request. Democrats agree with the underlying programs, which indicates the funding denial is more of a parochial turf spat, allowing them to express exasperation with Obama’s delay of his budget request.
3. ObamaCare. Late Friday, 34 Democrats, almost two-thirds of the caucus, joined Republicans in approving an amendment to repeal a medical-device excise tax, a key funding component of ObamaCare. While the amendment is non-binding, the vote signals the Democrats are open to repealing the more unpopular parts of ObamaCare. It is a clear sign that Obama’s policy priorities are no longer an important factor in the Democrats’ political calculus.
4. Keystone Pipeline. In another rebuke to the Obama Administration, 17 Senate Democrats joined their Republican amendment to pass an amendment directing the Obama Administration to immediately approve the proposed Keystone Pipeline. The defections came even as Sen. Barbara Boxer argued aggressively against the amendment. While this amendment is also non-bidding, it shows that support for building the pipeline is enough to overcome any future filibuster on the issue. It too is another sign that many of the Democrats’ political fortunes are separate from Obama’s agenda.
The past few weeks have witnessed stunning policy reversals for a President who was so recently reelected. At this point post-reelection, President’s usually have a great deal of political capital to spend on their priorities. The side-lining of the President on domestic issues occurs in the run-up to the second term mid-terms. Obama seems to be taking his place on the domestic policy bench much sooner than past Presidents.
Without a dramatic reversal of political fortunes, his Presidency will shrink further from the political scene.