President Obama's biggest problem over the next two years may not be coming from recalcitrant Republicans, but from members of his own party blanching at his activist agenda over the final two years of his presidency. While the midterm election results suggested widespread dissatisfaction with the president's policies, Obama nonetheless is planning to press forward on several polarizing decisions in his final two years. It could help advance his legacy, but come at the expense of the Democratic Party's long-term health.
Three of the administration's biggest agenda items—threatening a veto of bipartisan legislation authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, and issuing an executive order legalizing millions of illegal immigrants—divide Democrats, and unite Republicans. If the president moves forward with all of them, it would aggravate fissures in an increasingly-divided Democratic Party. And it would put Hillary Clinton, his party's expected 2016 standard-bearer, in an uncomfortable position even before she announces her candidacy. She's already avoided taking stances, if not outright rejecting the direction Obama is heading during his final two years in office.
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.
Within the White House, the prevailing political support for the sweeping executive action is twofold: Win back enthusiasm from Hispanic voters, and bait Republicans into opposing the move in the most self-defeating way possible. It's a risky political decision, one that downplays the fact that the White House is running against public opinion on the issue and spending the little political capital Obama has left in doing so. There's hardly a guarantee that Hispanics would respond to the executive order by turning out for Hillary Clinton, and it could spark a backlash from blue-collar voters migrating away from the party. Over one-quarter of Democrats oppose unilateral action on immigration, a significant enough minority to cause the party future problems. In the meantime, it risks foreclosing other opportunities for working with the GOP Congress on trade, tax reform, or even a scaled-back version of immigration reform in the future. Again, Obama is playing to the base over reaching out to the middle.
Reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran, the president's leading foreign policy priority, threatens to provoke the biggest rupture with his own party. Liberal allies of the president who are strong supporters of Israel, including Sens. Chuck Schumer, Robert Menendez, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Ben Cardin, would likely join with Republicans in expressing opposition if a nuclear deal fell short of disarming the regime. Even another delay in the negotiations would likely spark bipartisan legislation calling for renewed sanctions. Under Republican leadership, tough-on-Iran legislation that was blocked under Majority Leader Harry Reid would be open for a vote, one that could divide the Democratic Caucus. (In 2014, 17 Senate Democrats sponsored the Menendez-Kirk bill advocating for tough Iran sanctions if an agreement isn't reached.)
While public polling shows support for diplomacy, there are plenty of political risks if a final agreement were to fall short of disarming the Iranian regime. The data suggest voters are very distrustful of Iran, but are keeping an open mind about the negotiations currently taking place. If an agreement allows Iran to preserve its capability to build nuclear weapons, however, public opinion could grow negative quickly.
After Obama reached an interim agreement to loosen sanctions for Iranian participation in nuclear negotiations, Quinnipiac found a 46 percent plurality opposing the deal, with 44 percent approving. One-quarter of Democrats disapproved. An earlier ABC/Washington Post survey in November 2013 found widespread support for a comprehensive deal with Iran, but deep skepticism that the agreement would prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, a January 2014 poll conducted by veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, on behalf of the pro-Israel advocacy group The Israel Project, found large majorities of Americans disapproving of the president's policies towards Iran, and support for congressional approval of any final deal.
President Obama has given lip service to being the reasonable adult in Washington, but his actions have suggested otherwise. He's always preferred to blame House Republicans for intransigence rather than alienating his base to compromise. Even a former White House adviser told The Huffington Post that the president viewed the 2010 election results as primarily a communications challenge, not a sign to moderate his agenda. "The president does own some responsibility for not being able to crack that code [of Republican opposition]," the aide said. "But it is kind of his job. If it's anybody's job to exist in that reality and still make progress, it is the president's."
Based on his postelection comments, it doesn't seem that President Obama has learned any lessons from his party's latest midterm wipeout, either. The across-the-board GOP sweep was a response to widespread dissatisfaction over his policies. Obama's focus on the voters who "chose not to participate in the process" conveniently ignores the fact that Democrats spent more than $60 million to turn out less-reliable voters, but lost despite the expensive efforts. Midterm elections always feature lower turnout than in presidential years. Obama's the first president to blame that for his party's defeat.
This time, the consequences to political denial are more significant. During the 2010 midterms, the president still had a reelection campaign to restrain his activist impulses. Now that he's most interested in legacy-building, the Democratic Party's fortunes be damned.
Hillary Clinton now has to worry about the political implications of Obama's final two years in office. She's already critiqued the administration's Iranian diplomacy, and has dodged questions over her position on Keystone and whether she supports an executive order on immigration. Obama's team insists they're doing Hillary Clinton a favor with their ploys to excite the base before the next presidential election. She doesn't seem to see things the same way.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.