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In April, with his domestic agenda stymied in Congress, Barack Obama tried to channel Mark Twain when he declared, “Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.”
For the president, those were the good old days. In the early spring, his approval rating was still over 50 percent in some surveys and he clung to hopes for legislative victories like immigration reform. Since then, on almost every front, things have gotten worse politically for the president. Obama’s popularity in the polls now averages 44 percent, close to the nadir of his presidency.
It’s not only the polls. Immigration reform is dying in Congress. And not even last week’s massacre at the Washington Navy Yard could revive efforts for limited gun legislation, a cause that earlier this year aroused Obama’s deepest public emotions.
October could bring both a government shutdown and an unprecedented default on the national debt, though the fractious and sometimes unreasonable Republicans would bear a heavy share of the blame. But it was the congressional Democrats, who, earlier this month, torpedoed Obama’s favorite for chairman of the Federal Reserve (Larry Summers) and balked at the president’s request for legal authority to bomb Syria.
In short, Obama appears reduced to reciting the lame-duck lament. But is the president truly doomed to brooding irrelevance during his final 40 months in the Oval Office?
Forty months can be an eternity in the lives of presidents and nations. By way of comparison, 44 months was what it took America to win World War II from the attack on Pearl Harbor to Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast announcing the Japanese surrender.
The rest of the Obama presidency is unlikely to be a replica of what we have seen so far. Obama’s second-term poll numbers, which are a rough measure of the success of his presidency, might improve or they might continue to plummet as they did for George W. Bush and Harry Truman. But change is almost inevitable with volatile, short-attention-span contemporary politics.
Maybe the only certainly in American politics is that Obama’s reputation and the perceptions of his presidency will be different on the day he leaves office (Jan. 20, 2017) than they are today.
So here are nine plausible scenarios — both positive and negative for Obama — that might put the power back in POTUS or turn him into the 21st century’s version of Millard Fillmore.
1. Obamacare works
Scenario: Even though there inevitably will be technical glitches and coverage gaps, by mid-2015 the Affordable Care Act (its formal moniker) will be as popular as the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Fine Print: Even if Obamacare reduces costs and increases coverage, Republicans might still battle to repeal it for years. Success will ultimately burnish the president’s reputation, but gratitude for Obamacare will probably do little to boost Democratic turnout in the 2014 congressional elections.
2. Obamacare implodes
Scenario: Because of both the law’s complexity and administrative errors by the government, the rollout of Obamacare is the rockiest launch since Clint Eastwood’s 2012 GOP convention speech. With the president’s legacy in tatters, even Democrats start to wonder if the benefits of Obamacare were worth the political cost.
Fine Print: Rather than prompting the Democrats to give up on health care reform, the 2016 presidential contenders start talking about a single-payer plan like Medicare. And in political terms, it is hard to imagine the Republicans more enraged about Obamacare than they are already.
3. Obama the peacemaker
Scenario: The surprising diplomatic flurries of the past few weeks yield lasting results. Iran agrees to abandon its nuclear program in return for ending its status as a pariah nation. Syria, with continued Russian prodding, does give up its chemical arsenal, and eventually Bashir Assad steps aside in favor of a transitional government.
Fine Print: Obama gets to reframe his second term as the Foreign Policy Presidency. But these successes buy him little domestic political support, because Iran and Syria are not voting issues at a time of economic hardship.
4. Obama the global blunderer
Scenario: Nothing works for Obama on the international stage. The overtures from Iran are derailed by theocratic hard-liners, while Assad finds new ways to massacre Syrian civilians. Secretary of State John Kerry accomplishes little besides racking up frequent flier miles.
Fine Print: After eight years in the White House, Obama leaves office with little beyond his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. But even though Republicans like John McCain ridicule Obama’s fecklessness on the international stage, most voters turn out to care little about any global issue that doesn’t involve American casualties.
5. The Obama recovery — at last
Scenario: It might have more to do with the Federal Reserve and global trends than any second-term Obama policies, but the economy moves into overdrive for the first time since the 2008 economic collapse. Not only does the jobless rate sharply decline, but increased tax revenue also dramatically improves long-term deficit projections.
Fine Print: Nothing could do more to burnish Obama’s presidential record — and help the Democrats hold the Senate in 2014. Finally, there is a narrative to the Obama Years: He brought America back from the Great Recession.
6. The Obama downturn — again
Scenario: A global recession brought on by cutbacks in China and renewed austerity in Europe spreads to America as joblessness rises. Partisan gridlock rules out any form of stimulus from Washington, as even extended unemployment benefits can’t make it through Congress.
Fine Print: Even though Obama inherited the 2008 financial crisis, he goes down in history as the Hard Times President. The 2014 congressional elections are a GOP sweep like 2010. And Obama becomes so unpopular that he is asked to not appear at the 2016 Democratic Convention.
7. Obama wins budget battle
Scenario: Congressional Republicans, torn between their tea party wing (Ted Cruz, please pick up the white courtesy phone) and mainstream conservatives such as House Speaker John Boehner, blunder into shutting down the government for most of October. They back down only when international credit markets panic that America will refuse to increase the legal debt ceiling.
Fine Print: Even with everything breaking politically for Obama, the Democrats are unable to win back the House in 2014, although they come close. But the GOP congressional leaders are so scarred by their party’s fiscal fiasco that 2015 proves to be a fruitful year of let’s-make-a-deal compromises with the president.
8. Obama hoists white flag over budget
Scenario: Obama, as he has so often in his presidency, retreats in the face of unified Republican opposition on the budget and the debt ceiling. No, the president doesn’t abandon Obamacare, but he does delay its launch for three months and agrees to a new round of GOP-mandated budget cuts.
Fine Print: Not that much changes in the Capital. Obama continues to be perceived as the Incredible Shrinking President, and empowered congressional Republicans concoct outrageous new schemes to thwart governmental business as usual. Voters in 2014 express their frustration with Washington gridlock by defeating prominent incumbents in both parties.
9. Obama shakes up White House staff
Scenario: Learning from his political missteps, Obama does what Ronald Reagan did after the Iran-Contra scandal — and brings in a team of Washington wise men (and women) to bring new direction to the White House. The president puts his golf game on hiatus to instead devote his time to personally wooing Congress.
Fine Print: Now that’s implausible. We can file this scenario right next to the idea that national unity will be achieved after little green men from Mars land on the White House lawn. Some things in Washington will never change — starting with Obama’s personality and his detached approach to governing.