Still not king of the Hill: In his first term, Obama never learned how to manage Congress

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

By Walter Shapiro

Being president is a daily, even hourly, character test. Every decision from approving a drone attack in Yemen to framing the State of the Union address is fraught with real-world consequences that can shape a president’s legacy.

Of course, political survival plays a role in these calculations. That is why the six weeks since the election are so potentially revealing about Barack Obama, who remains the most guarded and emotionally remote modern president. For the first time since he ran for the Illinois state Senate in 1996, Obama does not have to worry about the short-term verdict of the voters.  

Since his definitive re-election, the president has summoned poetry from despair in his prayerful speech at the Sandy Hook memorial. But Obama also allowed Susan Rice, his presumed choice for secretary of state, to step aside in the face of trumped-up Republican attacks over Benghazi. And, in what appears to have been a futile effort to placate John Boehner, the president this week voluntarily abandoned a position on taxes that he had upheld in virtually every speech during the 2012 campaign.

Until the moment Obama leaves office in 2017, all assessments of his character as a leader are tentative, works in progress subject to revision in light of new developments. But with that sense of humility in mind, here is what we have learned about Obama since the election:

Guns: At his Wednesday press conference, Obama took umbrage at the accurate suggestion that he had been AWOL on the subject of gun violence before 20 children died in Newtown. “I’ve been president of the United States dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse [and] two wars,” Obama said defensively. “I don’t think I’ve been on vacation.”

External events often dictate a president’s priorities, so Obama did not need to invoke Afghanistan and Iraq to justify his prior lack of interest in renewing the assault-weapons ban. But now that the president has pledged that gun legislation will be a centerpiece of his State of the Union address next month, Obama should be held to a higher standard.

Dating back to the 2009 stimulus bill and health care reform, the standard Obama approach to Capitol Hill has been to stand aloof from the legislative details and the backroom bargaining over final wording. But as Joe Biden should know from the 1994 crime bill (which included an ineffective assault-weapons ban), a hands-off approach by the White House does not work with gun legislation. Without active presidential leadership, any gun bill that passes Congress will have NRA-engineered loopholes wide enough to drive an armored truck through.

To govern is to choose. And in the tear-stained aftermath of the Connecticut massacre, Obama appears to have placed a higher legislative priority on guns than immigration reform. It may well be a morally and politically defensible choice, especially if Obama is correct in sensing that this is a once-a-generation moment to lessen gun violence.

But that cause requires an activist LBJ-style president willing to exert unrelenting pressure on Congress rather than the familiar conflict-averse Obama searching for a non-existent consensus. Within the tight limitations imposed by the Supreme Court, it will be difficult to pass federal legislation that both significantly reduces gun deaths and survives constitutional scrutiny.

That is the character test awaiting Obama over guns: The president has a choice between a protracted and debilitating legislative crusade on Capitol Hill or the empty symbolism of a toothless bill that does little to prevent the next school shooting.

National Security: Obama’s second-term national security team could well be dominated by two former senators and Vietnam veterans—John Kerry, who the president just nominated as secretary of state, and, if the rumors are true, Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon.

What this may suggest is that Obama has made a conscious decision to reflect America’s war weariness in his top appointments. Both Kerry and Hagel—along with Biden, of course—understand how an unpopular war can derail even the most successful two-term president. It is even possible to interpret both the Kerry pick and potential Hagel nomination as an indication that Obama intends to resist any hair-trigger response to Iran’s nuclear weapons program or other flash-point crisis.

But it is equally likely that, after the furor over Rice, Obama is simply taking the easy path—picking nominees who will sail through Senate confirmation because of their Capitol Hill pedigrees. (A scurrilous attack on Hagel as anti-Israel, orchestrated by Weekly Standard editor and Iraq War cheerleader Bill Kristol, has aroused a fierce counter-reaction).

That is the Obama enigma: How much is ideology and how much is conflict avoidance? With Kerry and Hagel, is the president reflecting a dovish, but pragmatic, outlook in foreign affairs? Or are these both make-no-waves choices picked because of factors that have little to do with their national-security orientation? Kerry, after all, was the only well-known alternative to Rice, and Hagel would be reprising the Robert Gates role as the token Republican at the senior level of the Obama Cabinet.

Taxes: In Iowa City in late May 2007, a fledgling presidential candidate named Obama unveiled his health-care plan. His proposed expansion of coverage would be paid for by (wait for it) ending the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year. There was nothing magical about $250,000 other than, in political terms, it seemed to separate the wealthy from the upper middle class.

But through slavish repetition by Obama, that $250,000 figure seemed as unalterable as pi. In his mid-November press conference, Obama again talked passionately about the need “to pass a law right now that would prevent any tax hike whatsoever on the first $250,000 of everyone’s income.”

After more than five-and-a-half years, that ironclad Obama position is now officially inoperative. The president’s budget offer to Boehner Monday raised that income threshold to $400,000. Since the House speaker could not even pass a bill raising taxes on those earning more than $1 million per year, there is a persistent sense that—once again—Obama has been rolled.

There is no overarching ideology here, since some compromise in the face of the “fiscal cliff” has long been inevitable. But with Obama, there is always the question of where does political positioning end and bedrock principle begin?

During his 2011 budget talks with Boehner, Obama offered to gradually increase the age of eligibility for Medicare. The president subsequently abandoned that position, but he is now willing to accept a new inflation formula for Social Security that will, over time, slightly reduce benefits. The point is not that Medicare and Social Security should be off limits in all budget negotiations, but rather it comes back to the enduring mystery of precisely what does Obama believe.

During his re-election campaign, Obama remained elusively vague about his second-term plans. But the assumption was that—once free of political pressures—Obama would reveal his governing agenda. Now, it seems quite possible that even after the inaugural address next month, we will still be searching for the Rosetta Stone that deciphers Obama’s vision.