Now, President Barack Obama limps into his final two years in office.
All second-term presidents lose considerable clout at this mark. But Obama’s time as a lame duck comes amid a political climate so fractured that compromise between Congress and him is all but impossible. And the Republican takeover of the Senate only further complicates his power to confront a confounding array of foreign and domestic policy challenges.
The range of crises is daunting.
Though the U.S. economy is growing at a healthy clip, wages are stagnant and the global economy is faltering. The Islamic State group has racked up victories in Iraq and Syria, testing the administration’s policies, even as the U.S. rains down airstrikes. The appearance of the deadly Ebola virus in the United States has rattled Americans and raised questions about whether a weary White House can handle several crises at once. A budget deal that bought peace with Congress for a while is nearing its end.
Against that backdrop, Obama will head to Asia and Australia next week for summit meetings, even as the old Congress returns to Washington for its own lame-duck session to finish work on the budget and other issues. And a new Republican-led Senate looms over the horizon.
Obama will make one move without Congress. Aides said Tuesday that he’d sign an executive order by the end of December giving temporary legal status to help some of the 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally stay and work in the U.S. He’d delayed the order earlier this fall, when endangered Democrats feared that a backlash would cost them their jobs.
With that, he might have little room left to work with a GOP-led Congress.
Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said after he won re-election Tuesday and appeared poised to become Senate majority leader that he and Obama “have an obligation to work together on issues on which we agree.”
But he also was defiant.
“I don’t expect the president to wake up tomorrow morning and view the world any differently,” McConnell said. “He knows I won’t, either.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said after his party took control of the Senate that voters rejected Obama’s “failed polices” and that he hoped Obama would “listen to the American people” just like the Republicans planned to do.
Obama is likely to speak publicly Wednesday about the election results. A meeting on Friday with congressional leaders at the White House could be chilly.
“There would have to be some really exceptional set of events to get people who have shown no interest in cooperating to get something done,” said Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the presidency. “It is very hard to see how there is any substantial legislation.”
All this while much of Washington and the political world tunes out Obama and starts looking in earnest for his successor. The political calendar renders the outgoing president “yesterday’s news” as soon as the midterm elections are over and the 2016 presidential race begins, said Lou D’Allesandro, a veteran New Hampshire state senator and Democratic operative.
“If you’re the president, what big initiatives are you going to do here?” asked D’Allesandro, who’s already seen a parade of 2016 hopefuls courting voters in New Hampshire. “Republicans will do everything they can to accomplish nothing.”
Obama enters these final months already hampered by low approval ratings that made him radioactive to most Democrats running in close elections this year. He spent the last two days leading up to Election Day in meetings at the White House.
But if he’s unpopular, so are congressional Republicans. And Vice President Joe Biden argued, perhaps hopefully, that congressional Republicans will need to compromise with Obama if they want something to tout in 2016.
“We know what we have to get done the last two years,” Biden said. The White House is “ready to compromise,” he said on CNN. “And I think (Republicans will) be inclined because the message from the people, and I’m getting it all over the country, is they’re tired of Washington not being able to do anything.”
Though he may feel lonely, Obama isn’t alone in what he faces. The last three presidents to serve two terms – Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – spent their last two years in office with the opposition controlling both chambers of Congress. Reagan never had a Republican-led House, and in his sixth-year midterm election Republicans lost control of the Senate. In Bush’s sixth-year midterm, Republicans lost control of both chambers.
Aides who worked for those former presidents say a lame-duck president can still accomplish things.
Obama and congressional Republicans share a desire to show voters they can govern, said William Galston, a former policy adviser to Clinton who’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center.
“President Obama, like any president, wants to finish strong and leave as much of a legacy as he can,” Galston said. And Republicans “are struggling with a badly degraded brand,” he said. “The Republican leadership has some pretty powerful incentives to show they can do business.”
Reagan found a way to pass trade agreements, rewrite welfare laws, ratify an arms treaty, secure a Supreme Court justice confirmation and pass 13 appropriations bills while coping with the Iran-Contra scandal, said Ken Duberstein, who served as Reagan’s chief of staff in his second term.
“There is incentive for Obama, if he wants those last two years to be of consequence, to figure out ways to work with Congress,” Duberstein said. “He needs to build trusting relationships.”
It will take a commitment to work with Congress, and, probably an infusion of newly invigorated staff, he said.
The White House has signaled that some personnel changes are likely, with Ebola czar Ron Klain likely to move into the West Wing permanently in some capacity.
But Press Secretary Josh Earnest dismissed suggestions of a major shakeup, at least not right away.
“There have been some presidents who have felt compelled in the aftermath of midterm elections to publicly fire high-profile members of the administration,” he said. “At this point, I don’t anticipate that that will happen later this week.”
Obama and Republicans could compromise on a variety of issues, including trade, corporate tax restructuring, immigration changes and investing in the nation’s highways and railroads.
“There are ways to bridge the differences,” Duberstein said. “I think there is a fork in the road. If he wants to stay insular, he doesn’t get anything done.”
The Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group, found optimism in the records of Obama’s predecessors for judicial nominations. The group found that Reagan, Clinton and Bush saw about 20 percent of their total number of judicial appointments confirmed during their final two years, despite their lame-duck status.
The results suggest “neither the White House nor Senate Democrats should yield to the narrative of an inevitable confirmation shutdown,” the group said.