Next for Obama: New momentum or long fight just to keep status quo

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 17, 2013 

President Barack Obama, shown here at the White House two weeks ago, wants the federal government to do more to attract foreign investment.

OLIVIER DOULIERY — MCT

— President Barack Obama’s victory in his budget battle with congressional Republicans may be fleeting.

He managed to do little more than keep intact his significant first-term achievement, the new health care law dubbed Obamacare. The temporary fix of the budget means he’ll spend coming months fighting more budget battles. For at least another year, he’ll face a Republican-led House of Representatives that might be unable to undo the health care law but still is able to block any new Obama initiatives. And the way this week’s clash was resolved might have done as much to harden partisan divisions as bend the Republicans to capitulate.

So as he looks ahead to his final three years in office, the question is: Will he be able to build on his first-term accomplishments or will he spend his remaining years fighting just to defend the status quo?

“It’s going to be incalculably harder,” said Matt Bennett, who worked for former President Bill Clinton and later co-founded Third Way, a center-left research center. “It doesn’t look great right now.”

The clash this month underscored the deeply polarized views of government and likely aggravated the divide between Obama and Republicans who control the House of Representatives.

Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant and former House aide, said Republicans were left with sour feelings after a battle that seemed to grow more personal as each day dragged on. “Obama called Republicans crazy and played to his base,” he said. “It doesn’t bode well.”

Republicans also chafed at how Obama appeared to claim victory prematurely Wednesday by speaking before the House could vote, a vote that was certain to end with Republicans losing their failed bid to use government funding to force a weakening of Obamacare. Republicans also personalized the fight and demonized the president.

For his part, Obama looked for momentum coming out of the budget fight.

He wants to overhaul the tax code, combat climate change, spend more money on road, bridge and building repairs and expand early childhood education. And he said he hoped to start immediately on a rewrite of the nation’s immigrations laws and a compromise on the farm bill, which outlines the U.S.’s major agricultural and food policies. Both were passed by the Democratic-led Senate, but stalled in the Republican-controlled House.

“We could get all these things done, even this year, if everybody comes together in a spirit of how are we going to move this country forward and put the last three weeks behind us,” Obama said.

Aides acknowledged that it will be difficult to enact new initiatives. But they insisted it can be done.

“The president is not at all convinced by the skeptics who say that we can’t get things done,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. “He refuses to believe that.”

But the fiscal deal struck this week guarantees that Obama will be mired in fiscal battles for months to come. The bill set up a negotiating committee to try to craft a longer-term budget plan by mid-December while funding the government only through mid-January and raising the debt limit through early February.

Chip Pickering, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi who works as a lobbyist, said Obama must renew his efforts to work lawmakers if he had hopes of accomplishing any of his goals in his second term.

“Obama has to decide if he wants to have a legislative legacy that’s greater than what he currently has, which is one very controversial achievement of Obamacare,” he said.

Even liberal members of the president’s party have grown disenchanted with him on some issues, including his consideration of Larry Summers to head the Federal Reserve. But his tough stance this month on the budget has placated some of them.

Jim Nussle, a former Republican congressman from Iowa and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, said lawmakers and Obama had a choice either to continue with their “broken relationship” or try not to let the situation fester.

“These moments in time, these crises when averted, do present an opportunity,” he said. “They’re usually brief. They’re not usually very deep, but they do present an opportunity for relationship building. . . . It’s that foxhole mentality. You were in the same foxhole together, same crisis together.”

Obama has long left the schmoozing and lobbying of lawmakers to his aides. His detached personality has been blamed for his failure to achieve his goals, while his biggest accomplishments – the health care law and a stimulus package designed to boost the economy – came with little or no Republican support.

He tried this year to engage lawmakers more with a series of dinners, primarily with Republican senators, in the months leading to negotiations over the budget, but no compromise was ever reached.

Rep. Jim Costa, a moderate Democrat from central California, said Obama could start working on his relationship with Congress by speaking more to lawmakers and having Vice President Joe Biden and Cabinet secretaries do the same.

“Maybe the president can use this as an opportunity to bring folks together,” he said. “Clearly butting heads together during the first 15 days didn’t work.”

Greg Gordon contributed to this report.

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01

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