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.

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.