The dirty secret in Washington is that while Obama (rightly) blamed Republicans for holding positions to the right of the American electorate, the president is pursuing policies that are equally as far to the left.
Approving construction of the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline may not be the most consequential legislation, but it is symbolic of the lengths the administration has gone to avoid a postelection bipartisan accomplishment. Embattled Sen. Mary Landrieu, on the ballot next month in a Louisiana Senate runoff, has been furiously lobbying colleagues to approve the pipeline, and won support from 14 Democrats in an unsuccessful vote Tuesday. A new USA Today poll of adults, conducted last week, found strong support for it—60 percent backing construction of the Keystone pipeline, with only 25 percent opposed. This month, the Pew Research Center found even 44 percent of Democrats supporting it, with 46 percent opposed. When Republicans take control of the Senate in January, it's expected to pass with at least 63 votes.
A president looking to change the tone in Washington would be well-served to find common ground on an issue that members of both parties agree on. But instead, he dismissed its job-creating benefits and left his spokesman, Josh Earnest, to hint at a veto last week. The project has now been delayed for six years. Given that energy issues played a consequential role in Senate contests from Colorado to Kentucky—and are dooming the prospects of an otherwise-reliable ally in Landrieu—the administration's stubbornness on the issue is baffling. If it's only a symbolic issue, why not use it to build some confidence-building capital with Republicans on other more significant goals?
Blame environmental activists, who make up a small slice of the Democratic electorate but an outsize share of influence, for the gridlock. The president is either being held hostage by his base, or is in sync ideologically with their interests. Either way, it's remarkably similar to the problems Republican congressional leaders faced with their rank-and-file—a conflict that led to the deeply unpopular government shutdown. (And as I wrote in last week's column, there are clear signs that the incoming Republican-controlled House and Senate are more pragmatic than their predecessors, making the president's leftward lurch before the next Congress is even sworn in a case of awful timing.)
Public opinion is more closely divided on immigration reform. Majorities sympathize with the ends but not the means of the administration's intent to issue an executive order legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants. There's a reason that the president avoided intervening in the middle of the midterm campaign, a telltale acknowledgement that a unilateral decision was a major political loser. The latest round of polling backs that up. Among all adults surveyed in a new USA Today poll, a 46 percent plurality want the president to wait for the GOP Congress to act on immigration, while 42 percent support the president's desire to act now. If the sample was of registered voters, the margin would be even greater.