A different approach for Barack Obama's second term
WASHINGTON — In President Barack Obama's first term, a promise of bipartisanship withered on stony ground; as his second begins, he has openly embraced confrontation.
On a parade of hot-button political issues, including the budget, gun control and immigration, Obama, who took the oath of office for a second term Sunday in a quiet White House ceremony, has begun to hammer on weak points in the Republican coalition.
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He has made little effort to woo members of the opposition in Congress, whose positions he has characterized publicly as “intransigent,” “extreme” and “absurd.” Instead, he appears intent on dividing them.
That approach has unified Democrats, who remain staunchly supportive of the president, while exacerbating splits in Republican ranks, according to polls. While the strategy involves considerable risk, Obama and his aides seem convinced that it offers their best hope of winning major legislative victories in an era of deep partisan divisions.
During his first term, Obama and his aides engaged in lengthy negotiations and offered concessions aimed at winning a handful of Republican votes during battles over health care and the economic stimulus.
That effort proved futile, whether because of Obama's own inability to reach across the aisle (the Republican view), the intransigence of his opposition (the Democratic version) or the inherent problems of compromise in a divided country.
Now, the administration wants to “stay away from inside-the-Beltway, elite negotiations and try to pursue an outside-in strategy, where the president seeks to mobilize public opinion and put pressure on a minority of Republicans,” said William Galston of the Brookings Institution, a liberal public policy think tank.
The idea, Galston said, is to find weak spots in the GOP coalition, “stick a wedge into the crack and wiggle it back and forth until it breaks.”
White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said Obama was not adopting “a confrontational strategy” but acting confidently “with the experience of four years.”
“His intent isn't to cause fracases in the Republican Party,” she added, saying that his focus is on policy. “The way he looks at it is, these are causes that can actually bring our country together.”
Republicans disagree, of course, and say Obama's approach guarantees that nothing will get done.
“The president is really good at campaigning and really bad at governing,” Republican strategist Whit Ayres said. “Anything that's going to get through this Congress is going to have to be done in a bipartisan way.” But, he added, Obama has shown “no inclination or ability” to accomplish that.
Whichever view is right, the legislative clock runs quickly for second-term presidents.
“In second terms the window of opportunity is pretty narrow, maybe 18 months,” said University of Texas professor H.W. Brands, one of a group of historians who have met several times with Obama for off-the-record dinners to discuss the presidency. “After that, they are really lame ducks.”
White House officials believe that recent events have vindicated their hard-edged strategy. In December's confrontation over the federal budget, Obama made an initial offer that embodied an extensive Democratic wish list. House Republicans denounced him for not negotiating seriously, vowed to block his plans to raise income tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, and then gave in when the deadline arrived.
Obama made some concessions, but far fewer than he had in previous negotiations. In the end, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, allowed a tax increase on the wealthy to come to the House floor and to pass despite opposition from most of his caucus. The bill marked the first time any Republican in Congress had voted for an income tax hike in more than 20 years.
Obama and his aides say they hope the budget vote established a template for other votes coming to the House floor without support from a majority of Republicans.
On immigration, Obama plans to offer a proposal that would create a path to citizenship for most of the country's estimated 11 million illegal residents. The measure would go much further than immigration efforts that failed to even come to a vote in his first term. What may make the passage of such legislation possible, advocates argue, are Republican worries about the party's poor showing among Latino voters in the 2012 election.
A tougher test will come on gun control. White House strategists hope that public outrage over the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., will push members of Congress in relatively moderate, suburban districts away from the National Rifle Association and its allies. Dividing the GOP would provide cover for Democrats from conservative states who are the keys to winning passage of any gun measures in the Senate.
If the GOP opposition cracks, the president can win major victories. If the Republicans vote down his proposals, “the Republicans are now the party that's viewed as being fundamentally intransigent,” and the votes could help Democratic candidates in future elections, said Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the administration.
Either way, Teixeira said, White House officials believe “it's going to be a net benefit to them.”
Monday, Jan. 21
8:45 a.m. EST — The Obamas and Bidens attend a church service at St. John's Episcopal Church.
11:20 a.m. — Ceremonial swearing-in at the Capitol.
11:50 a.m. — President Barack Obama gives the inaugural address.
The order of the program
Musical selections: The U.S. Marine Band
Musical selections: P.S. 22, Staten Island in N.Y., and Lee University Festival Choir, Cleveland, Tenn.
Call to order and welcoming remarks: Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Invocation: Myrlie Evers-Williams
Musical selection: Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir
Oath of office administered to Vice President Joe Biden: Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Musical selection: James Taylor
Oath of office administered to President Obama: Chief Justice John Roberts
Inaugural address: President Obama
Musical selection: Kelly Clarkson
Poem: Richard Blanco
Benediction: the Rev. Luis Leon of St. John's Church, Washington
The National Anthem: Beyoncé
1:05 p.m. — Obama, Biden and their wives attend the inaugural luncheon.
2:40 p.m. — Inaugural parade begins. The Obamas and Bidens participate in a parade featuring floats and vehicles representing about 60 groups. Viewing stands and bleachers are lined along Pennsylvania Avenue.
6 p.m. — The Commander in Chief's Inaugural Ball at the Washington Convention Center. The gala honors service members and their families.
6:30 p.m. — The Inaugural Ball at the Washington Convention Center.
Tuesday, Jan. 22
10:30 a.m. — National Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral. The Obamas and Biden attend.
By The Associated Press
Sources: The Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House