Obama’s ’14 tool kit

Why it's so important for the president and his party to force the GOP to vote on his agenda now

Topics: Opening Shot, Barack Obama, John Boehner, Gun Control, Minimum wage, 2014 elections

There are two ways of thinking about the ambitious second-term legislative strategy President Obama is pursuing. Calls for new gun laws, comprehensive immigration reform, a hike in the minimum wage, and a “balanced approach” to undoing the sequester and striking a long-term deficit reduction plan highlighted his State of the Union message last week.

It may be that the White House sees this as an opportune moment to pounce, with Republicans still digesting their defeat last November and fissures within the party beginning to surface. So why not take this occasion to put the GOP on the spot on a series of issues where its orthodoxy is out of line with mainstream opinion? Even with Republicans running the House, there may just be enough sentiment from potentially vulnerable incumbents – and from party leaders sensitive to the GOP’s national image – to strike some deals with Obama on his agenda.

If this is Obama’s game, there’s some evidence it’s working. Already this year, we’ve seen Republicans give ground on their anti-tax absolutism, allowing a fiscal cliff deal that raised rates on income over $450,000 to come to the House floor, where just enough GOP members voted “yes” to allow it to pass. Republican leaders and conservative opinion-shapers have also been willing to give Sen. Marco Rubio some latitude in pursuing an immigration deal; even in light of Rubio’s most recent comments on the subject, the prospect that a compromise will be reached is still real. And there has been impressive bipartisan movement toward a tightened background check system for gun purchases.

So it makes sense for the White House to push hard now and test just how far the GOP is willing to budge in its somewhat confused current state. But there’s probably a longer-term calculation at work too, one rooted in a recognition that there’s only so much Obama can achieve with Republicans running the House – and that there’s only so far those Republicans will ultimately go.

This explains why in his State of the Union speech Obama was so emphatic about simply calling for a vote on his gun control agenda – to the point that he even told members of Congress that “you can vote ‘no’ if you want.” This reflects the DOA status of several Obama proposals. A renewed ban on assault weapons, for instance, would have almost no chance of clearing the House, and maybe even the Senate. The prospects for limits on high-capacity magazines aren’t much better. Expanded background checks, though, could pass in some form, along with a crackdown on straw purchases and perhaps new laws to curb interstate trafficking.

The point, though, is that Obama and Democrats will have to settle for half a loaf on gun control, at best. And further-reaching ideas, like a federal buyback program, aren’t even on the agenda right now. Which is why it’s so important for them to get members of Congress on record on everything Obama now is proposing. In the wake of Sandy Hook, the public is hungry for action on gun violence in a way it hasn’t been since the early 1990s, when exploding violent crime rates were the impetus. Even if the assault weapons ban fails now, “no” votes could then be used in the 2014 campaign against potentially vulnerable House members and senators. This threat is reinforced by the engagement of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is prepared to use big bucks to go after anti-gun control candidates.

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Potentially, this could create a post-2014 political climate that’s even more favorable to gun legislation. If a consensus emerges that gun control was the driving issue in a series of key ’14 races, it could prompt traditionally pro-gun members of the next Congress (Republican and Democrat) to rethink their views. And it could make it impossible for Republicans to refuse to hold further votes on even more ambitious gun proposals.

The same goes for other Obama agenda items. Take the minimum wage hike, which House Speaker John Boehner seemed to rule out as soon as Obama proposed it. But already, Democrats are preparing to turn that resistance into a ’14 campaign issue, attacking Republicans if no vote is allowed (or for voting “no” if one is permitted). Again, if in the wake of the ’14 vote this is interpreted by the political world as a winning message for Democrats, Republicans will be much more likely to act in 2015.

On immigration, the GOP seems well aware of the need to strike a deal this year. But it’s an open question what parameters conservative leaders will accept. If there is a final product and it’s watered down, it will give Democrats another ’14 weapon; give us more votes in the next Congress and we can go further, they can promise.

Optimistic Democrats point to the possibility that their party will use these and other weapons to reclaim a House majority in ’14, and to hold onto the Senate as well. If this were to happen, Obama and Democrats would have a fresh two-year window to push an even more expansive agenda than Obama is now proposing — although since there’s no chance Democrats will break the 60-vote mark in the Senate next year, Republicans would still be able to stymie them with filibusters. It’s also very hard to see Democrats winning back the House, given the significant geographic advantage the GOP enjoys at the House level.

Chances are that next year’s election will leave the GOP in charge of the House. But if Democrats campaign on the issues Obama is now pushing and fare better than expected – suffering minimal losses, or maybe even gaining a seat or two – it would generate new momentum for his policy goals. And that momentum just might be enough to help Obama fight off the dreaded lame duck label until late in his second term.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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