What Obama's Next Three Years Will Look Like—for Better or Worse

Imagining the best- and worst-case scenarios for the rest of the president's term
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

On the cusp of his 2014 State of the Union message, President Obama is not exactly floating on air.

His fifth year, which started out with some promise of major legislative accomplishments—momentum for bipartisan legislation on gun background checks and immigration, movement with a cadre of Republican senators toward at least a mini-grand bargain involving revenues and serious long-term changes in Medicare and Social Security—came a cropper early, when the gun bill failed on—what else?—a filibuster in the Senate. As a harbinger, Senator Pat Toomey, the chief Republican sponsor of the background-check bill, explained its failure to Pennsylvania reporters by saying some of his GOP colleagues simply wouldn't vote in favor because Barack Obama was for it.

Second-term presidencies rarely result in strings of major accomplishments. Things get tougher as each year passes. One's own party begins to get distance as the sixth-year midterms approach, and the number of one's partisans almost inevitably diminishes with that election. And members of the other party pay less and less attention to a lame duck.

But those generalizations are not inevitable. There have been examples of major policy victories in a second term, most notably Ronald Reagan's bipartisan triumph on tax reform. And trends and patterns are not written in stone. Here is a very optimistic scenario for the rest of Barack Obama's term, followed by an equally pessimistic one.

Through a combination of his skilled use of the bully pulpit to define an agenda, and the growing public unease about dramatic economic inequality and long-term unemployment, the president scores a set of small but important victories, from an increase in the minimum wage to an extension of unemployment insurance. Building on ideas that have been advanced by conservative intellectuals, Obama finds a bipartisan coalition to support a series of moves to deal with the long-term unemployment problem, including job-sharing, incentives for businesses to hire new workers, a revamp of the earned-income tax credit, and a government-supported apprenticeship program. He uses executive action to expand his manufacturing initiative.

A newly awakened business community lobbies aggressively to head off another debt-limit debacle and to move the House to pass a narrow version of immigration reform that gets to a conference and provides an avenue for a comprehensive bill that passes the Senate with broad bipartisan support and gets adopted with a different coalition (more Ds than Rs) in the House. The business community also throws its muscle behind a major infrastructure package, creating an infrastructure bank financed in part via repatriated business profits from abroad. New Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden works with Dave Camp and Paul Ryan to pull together a tax-reform plan similar to the one Wyden and Dan Coats, among others, supported in the past, broadening the base, reducing deductions and credits, and also providing some redistribution to aid lower-income Americans.

Obamacare, following the earlier patterns of Medicare and Medicare Part D, moves beyond its early glitches with bumps but increasingly smooth operation, with the active assistance of an insurance industry and other health providers who have a strong stake in making it work. Like Massachusetts and Romneycare, the young and healthy sign up at the very last moment, creating reasonable risk pools. Most voters, unaffected directly by it, don't embrace it but begin to ignore it, while most who are affected are happy with the new opportunities and subsidies lowering their costs. Health-cost inflation continues to slow, easing deficit pressures and providing a boost to the economy.

The midterm elections keep a narrow Republican majority in the House, but also leave Democrats in the majority in the Senate, albeit with a smaller margin. But the continuing majority enables Obama to fill many more judgeships under the new filibuster regime, and to handle the turnover in his executive positions.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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