Calm Down, People: Obama's Second Term Was Already in Tatters

From appointments to gun control to the budget and taxes, Washington had reverted to its gridlocked self well before the latest scandals broke.


Are the AP snooping, Benghazi, and IRS scandals about to destroy Obama's second term? Not really—because hyperpartisanship in Washington had already stalled the president's agenda and put the 113th Congress on track to become another one of the young 21st century's already-legendary do-nothing bodies.

Most of what a president can accomplish takes place early in a term. But as Republican communications pros are fond of reminding reporters, Obama's second term was already off to a rocky start.

Gun control already failed.
The major reason the Toomey-Manchin bill to expand background checks failed was distrust of the federal government. That's not going to change. The IRS and AP scandals will no doubt worsen distrust of the federal government, especially in circles already prone to such sentiments and make it harder for members of Congress to withstand gun-lobby pressure. But the important thing to remember is that every major gun proposal before the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate already failed at a time when the political winds were as favorable to such reforms as they have been in more than a decade. And none of those proposals ever had a shot in the U.S. House.

Budget negotiations already failed.
The sequester was supposed to be a budgetary approach so stupid no one would ever allow it to be implemented, and yet here we are, with the Pentagon planning to furlough 650,000 civilian workers and Head Start and other programs across the country slashing services or putting off planned innovations. Even in the wake of a decisive reelection and while riding a crest of positive national sentiment, the president was unable to come to a grand bargain on revenues and spending with Republican leaders, and so instead we have the sequester, and no sign that Congress is eager to revisit the issue or reverse it. Republican willingness to negotiate with the president was always low, and what remained at the end of his first term seemed to evaporate early in the new year—that is, well before the current scandals.

Obama's appointments were already stalled.
Some worry that the scandals now providing fuel for congressional investigations could weaken the president and embolden his enemies to such an extent that they will prevent his second-term Cabinet from being seated in a timely manner, or as the president might wish. But after the successful Republican opposition to the idea of a Susan Rice nomination to the State Department and the GOP's pre-scandal efforts to thwart or delay the seating of Thomas Perez as Labor Secretary and Gina McCarthy as EPA Administrator, it will be hard to tell the difference if that's the case. The appointments process under Obama has been broken since 2009.

As for the matter of whether the AP scandal will lead to calls for Eric Holder's head, it's worth recalling that the chairman of the Republican National Committee already called for him to resign in December 2011 over the Fast and Furious program, releasing a web ad accusing him of a "cover-up." There may be more calls, but they won't be the first ones.

The implementation of Obamacare was already going to be complicated and rocky.
The period in which a massive new law is implemented is always full of kinks. That was going to be the case no matter what. The one thing that might potentially change in the wake of the IRS scandal is the willingness of Republicans to increase funding for the taxing agency, so that it can oversee the implementation of the tax credits, tax increases, and individual mandate compliance that are a key part of the Affordable Care Act. But given that the Republican-controlled U.S. House has already held 36 votes to repeal Obamacare—a 37th is planned this week—and opponents of the law already contested it all the way up to the level of the Supreme Court, it is not far-fetched to imagine that adequate funding to implement mandate oversight was always going to be a hard sell. As the Fiscal Times reported in an examination of the issue, "long before the current uproar over the IRS scrutiny of these politically motivated groups seeking non-profit status, Republicans were challenging budget and staffing levels at the IRS and demanding to know how much the agency intended to spend to implement Obama's health care reform law."

Republicans have also already refused to appoint people to the Independent Payment Advisory Board, tasked with finding Medicare savings under the health-reform law. Last week, before the AP scandal broke and before the extent of the IRS one came into view, Democratic congressman John Larson of Connecticut predicted that the road ahead would involve "yet another round of obstructionism, another round of hostage-taking and another round of trying to block anything that Obama does."

Immigration reform was always going to be a difficult bill to pass.
The best chance for Obama to enact a major domestic priority this year involves the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill, which revives the goal of providing undocumented immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. Attempts at comprehensive immigration reform have failed over and over since Reagan's 1986 "amnesty" bill, leading the Washington Post's Rachel Weiner to conclude in January, "if immigration reform succeeds, it will go against a quarter-century of political history."

Circumstances are more auspicious today than they were during the 2004-07 failed reform attempt period, but the Republican split on immigration is not something that will be resolved or erased by a new round of scandal investigations in the House. Republicans need to solve—or at least mitigate—their problems with Hispanic voters in order to have a shot at the White House in the years ahead, and the Washington leadership of the party knows this. That is a fact on the ground, as will be Hispanic anger if immigration reform and the fate of 11 million undocumented people fall victim to Republican opposition to the president thanks to Benghazi, the AP records snoop, or what went on in 2010 at the IRS division that reviews tax-exempt organizations. And yet there is also—already—substantial Republican resistance to a comprehensive bill, especially when it comes to questions like gay and lesbian immigration equality. "If the Judiciary Committee tries to redefine marriage in the immigration bill they will lose me and many others," Graham tweeted Monday.

Obama has said he will sign a bill that does not provide for gay and lesbian immigration equality, and ongoing scandal investigations might diminish his negotiating power on that front. But a much more significant factor than administration scandals when it comes to the fate of gays in the immigration reform bill will be the Supreme Court decisions, expected in late June, on two gay marriage cases.

In short, those who wondered why Obama seemed so singularly unenthusiastic about the prospect of a second term while in the midst of running for it now have their answer. Because it looks like this. Because despite optimistic rhetoric about how the 113th Congress would be different from the 112th, which was the least productive Congress since the 1940s, the likelihood was that it was always going to look like this.