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

The energy boom continues, providing opportunities for American energy exports, another boost to the economy, and reducing carbon emissions as more natural gas, cleaner coal, and alternative fuels enter the system, encouraged by the green jobs boosted by the infrastructure program. Obama achieves significant additional progress on the climate-change front through assertive and creative use of executive power. And he achieves notable successes on the global front, in Syria, Iran, and the Middle East. If Iraq and Afghanistan remain in turmoil, with sectarian violence and frequent bombings, they happen without a significant American military presence or American casualties, and neither country descends back into the abyss.

Now the bad scenario. March 2014 brings another debt-limit farce. Speaker John Boehner, after blasting outside radical-conservative forces and shepherding through the spending deal, overcompensates on the other side by indulging the radicals with a set of unachievable demands before increasing the debt ceiling. This time, we actually breach the limit before a severe adverse reaction from the global markets forces an extension. But the brief breach means another downgrade in U.S. credit, which forces some pension and mutual funds to divest their treasuries, leading to serious economic hiccups, raising interest rates and hurting economic growth, and causing even more public anger at the idiots in Washington.

Republicans in Congress refuse to extend unemployment insurance, leaving large numbers of long-term unemployed struggling to stay in their residences or pay their heating bills. House Republicans refuse to move any immigration bill, believing that even a narrow border-security bill will trigger a conference and the speaker will pull a bait-and-switch and force them to vote on a comprehensive bill with amnesty. Tax reform falters, with Democrats demanding some revenues and Republicans insisting on using tax reform to cut taxes further. Even a narrower corporate-tax reform flounders when businesses demand not just lower marginal rates but retention of all their tax breaks.

The health-reform rollout continues to be rocky and difficult, with a new wave of glitches at the back end, meaning many people who signed up and thought they had insurance find out they don't. Insurers struggle with the new risk pools, and the worst projections of Obamacare opponents prove accurate—further angering Americans about government and damaging Democrats and Obama. The midterm elections retain the GOP majority in the House and give Republicans a one-vote majority in the Senate, leaving Obama with an inability for his final two years to fill any significant executive positions, much less judgeships. Investigations into alleged wrongdoing and scandal ramp up in both houses, with Darrell Issa unleashed even more, and joined by counterparts in the Senate. The new GOP majority in the Senate, working with the House, pushes for more budget cuts in discretionary spending, further eroding our health and scientific-research infrastructure.

Syria collapses into regions controlled by different factions, including Alawites, Sunni and radical Shiites, providing new ground for terrorists, and the deal with Iran over nuclear weapons falls apart. Karzai falls in Afghanistan, with a new Taliban regime emerging. Iraq's vicious civil war intensifies. Under pressure from a coalition of war-weary and antiwar liberals and libertarian isolationist conservatives, America pulls back significantly from its role in the world, leaving new opportunities for Russia, China, and Iran.

Of course, the greatest likelihood is that we, and the president, will end up somewhere in between. One would have to be hopelessly pollyannish to expect these major legislative achievements. But there is a real chance, with some savvy and toughness on his part, and just a little bit of luck, that he could end up with a final three years tilted enough to the bright side that he can be satisfied.

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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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