It goes without saying that President Obama has experienced one of the worst first years of a second presidential term in modern history. Unlike President Clinton in 1997, Mr. Obama currently has little to no political leverage as he enters a contentious election year with a number of key races in play. Many in Washington have compared his predicament to that of George W. Bush, which will likely continue to be a leading narrative if the White House doesn’t regain control of its domestic agenda – and quickly. While HealthCare.gov is on the mend, a new wave of delays or cancellations will only raise doubts among at-risk Democrats.
In short, if Mr. Obama hasn’t already hit rock bottom, it’s hard to imagine how much worse things could get. It’s disheartening to see the party in such a bind, especially given my more than 30 years working on behalf of Democratic causes. As I wrote in a column recently, confidence in government and American institutions writ-large is quickly eroding.
By all accounts, three facts are clear: Mr. Obama is still president for another 1141 days. He has little to no interest in seeing Republicans take over the Senate and eliminate any chance of advancing his domestic priorities before leaving office. And finally, every president regardless of party makes a conscious pivot to a broader legacy agenda toward the latter half of his second term. Politically-speaking, Mr. Obama must recognize that the recent health care debacle warrants a new strategic approach.
Another opportunity exists: namely that Republicans likely won’t articulate proactive positions on health care, immigration reform or broad economic proposals. While the first is politically toxic for Democrats in 2014, the latter two – if tied to a bold jobs and growth agenda – create a window by which the White House and Democrats running in tight races can show results. Republicans, in particular, will be under tremendous pressure to court Hispanic voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election, but have shown few signs of proposing ideas to reform the nation’s ailing immigration system.
For Mr. Obama, pivoting to a pro-growth economic agenda and building on the slight uptick on momentum on the jobs front is likely his best shot at regaining the credibility necessary to govern, maintaining Democratic control of the Senate and laying the groundwork for a second Clinton administration. Two key areas present an opportunity for him to do so:
First, embrace trade policies that protect U.S. intellectual property and promote national competitiveness. The Trans Pacific Partnership – a 12-country trade negotiation that will create new opportunities for U.S. innovators in Asia and beyond – is high on the administration’s agenda with USTR signaling an interest in completing the process this year. Vice President Biden’s trip to the region last week serves as a reminder of the importance of expanding our interests there.
According to NDP Consulting, nearly 75 percent of U.S. exports – the equivalent of $1 trillion— are the result of IP-intensive sectors. Failing to reach a TPP agreement that protects IP – particularly on complex issues like those involving biologic medicines – will do little to advance Mr. Obama’s political or economic interests heading into next year. It’s critical that negotiators recognize the magnitude of getting this right.
Second, Mr. Obama has an opportunity to breathe new life into kitchen table issues that will resonate with midterm voters – sensible tax reform, early childhood education, innovation and STEM initiatives – making a point to draw clear connections as to how they will drive state and local job growth. While health care is set to dominate the national discourse for the foreseeable future, a stagnant economy will cause heartburn for both Democrats and Republicans next November. It’s in both parties’ best interest to return to the fundamentals before it’s too late.
Every second term administration over the past 30 years has experienced significant setbacks. It’s fair to say that 2013 will be remembered as containing a number of them.
However, three years and two months is an eternity in politics. With the right policy priorities, the opportunity to shift course is achievable. Rhetoric alone and excessive partisanship could lead to a significant setback in the midterm election, leading to an outcome that only paralyzes the administration’s efforts through 2016.