The Era of Big Accomplishments Is Over–For Now

Ramesh Ponnuru has an odd column up at Bloomberg today razzing Barack Obama for getting off to a bad start in second-term legislative accomplishments despite the “ambitious liberal vision” laid out in his inaugural and SOTU addresses. As Jonathan Chait notes, Ponnuru’s making a pretty hasty judgment since Obama’s second term is only three months old.

But a second Chait objection to Ponnuru’s argument is more significant:

Obama, argues Ponnuru, “could end up signing fewer pieces of major legislation in the first year of his second term than did George W. Bush”….

Nobody really challenges the premise that George W. Bush and a Republican Congress could find more grounds for legislative agreement than could President Obama and a Republican Congress.

Uh, yeah. With the advent of routine filibustering of any significant legislation by Senate Republicans, and GOP control of the House, Obama’s currently in a more difficult position than Bush was at this point in his second term, and arguably in as bad a position as 43 faced after 2006, when he had to deal with a narrowly Democratic Senate and a Democratic House.

Look, everybody knows the score: so long as congressional Republicans refuse to work with Democrats on legislation dealing with the major challenges facing the country, there will be no Era of Big Accomplishments for a Democratic president if the GOP has either control of the House or 41 firm votes in the Senate. Right now they have both, and they know it. As the gun issue has shown, big Democratic advantages in public opinion do not significantly inhibit Republican obstructionism. And even on the one big issue where many Republicans feel it is in their long-range interest to bend–immigration–it’s (a) not at all clear comprehensive reform legislation can survive conservative opposition, and even if it does (b) it will likely be a less progressive reform than George W. Bush was proposing six years ago.

Being as how Democratic presidents have a habit of wanting to govern, of course Obama hasn’t thrown up his hands or thrown in the towel in the face of this situation. He’s laid down second-term markers that reflect what he campaigned for in 2012, and what his supporters expect from him, and has also risked that support by making an offer to congressional Republicans on entitlements that seems designed to further expose their incorrigible obstructionism. He’ll also, I’m sure, try some executive gambits (e.g., on greenhouse gas emissions), though it’s unclear how many he can actually execute without practical control of Congress.

But we’ve known for a good while now that the odds of Obama being able to do much of anything other than protect the accomplishments he achieved before 2011 (and even that will be difficult) were low, and probably won’t improve a great deal after another midterm election cycle where Republicans have all sorts of advantages.

Inveterate Obama critics from the Right, and those on the Left who expect Obama to deploy magical powers to overcome the entrenched power of the GOP, will mock his record for its limited accomplishments. Lord knows he’s made mistakes and isn’t perfect. But at this stage, even if Obama combined the public charisma of FDR with the legislative skills of LBJ, it’s difficult to see how the road gets any easier. An unlikely House takeover in 2014 combined with a continued Senate majority willing to undertake radical filibuster reform might change everything. But anything less won’t change the basic dynamics.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.