Obama's Ambitious Second-Term Agenda Could Backfire

President Obama designates Chuck Hagel as his nominee for Secretary of Defense at the White House January 7, 2013.  (Richard A. Bloom) (National Journal)

The White House's ambitious agenda on gun control, immigration reform, and, perhaps, even climate change is a sign that President Obama believes he locked up precious political capital with his reelection and intends to spend it quickly. But that isn't welcome news to many of the Democrats who need him the most in the short term--the seven Democratic senators in conservative states facing tough reelection bids.

Just one week into the new year, Obama has already hit some unpleasant stumbling blocks with his own party. On gun control, the White House is now calculating that it will be "exceedingly difficult" to pass broad measures, The New York Times reports, a sharp U-turn from its optimism heading into the new year. Senators from the president's own party are the ones giving him trouble over his nominee for Defense secretary, former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel, with one of the president's most partisan backers privately expressing doubt about whether he'll support his nomination.

And on Friday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., announced his retirement, making it even more likely that a West Virginia Senate seat will turn Republican for the first time since 1959. Rockefeller's decision to step down early may give him more flexibility to vote with the White House on its pet initiatives, but it creates major problems for the Democrats looking to succeed him. The White House's planned agenda for the coming year is awfully inhospitable for a Democrat looking to keep his or her distance from the national party. (Notably, newly minted Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet, in a statement, said he is confident the party will elect an "independent-minded Democrat" to a seat.)

This is just the tip of the iceberg. To maintain their Senate majority in 2014, Democrats need to hold onto seven seats being contested on inhospitable turf--Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, Montana, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Dakota. Obama holds solid approval ratings nationally but, given the state of affairs in our polarized country, is in much more tenuous shape down South. The strategic positioning of Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor or Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Begich of Alaska will be fascinating to watch over the next year. Immigration, for example, is probably a winning issue for the president overall, but it will be a much tougher sell with Democrats in conservative states and districts. Rockefeller took the easy way out in stepping down.

My National Journal colleagues Ron Fournier and Jill Lawrence have been engaging in a debate over whether Obama is merely a good president, or a potentially great one. I disagree with the premise. I'd argue that given Democratic congressional supermajorities in his first two years and the lingering unpopularity of the Republican Party, he held the potential to accomplish a lot more--and in a more bipartisan fashion, as well. Health care reform was a costly detour from promoting a jobs-centric agenda in the president's first year. He's spending significant political capital on Hagel, at a time when the White House desperately needs a united Democratic front on gun control and immigration.

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, learned the hard way about bragging about his mandate, seeing his own ambitious Social Security reforms blow up in his face thanks to recalcitrant Republicans, and watching his approval ratings trend downward from there. Understanding the political limits, while also recognizing strategic opportunities, is an essential part of a president's job responsibility.

One of the biggest differences between 2012 and 2014 for down-ballot Democrats is that the president doesn't have the same political imperative to tack to the middle, free to pursue the issues deemed most important. That might be good for the president's legacy, certainly if he accomplishes his agenda, but the politically at-risk members of his own party are probably having different thoughts.