Political stories to watch in 2015

Michelle and Barack Obama wave and make the shaka gesture as they board Air Force One. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The YOLO presidency of Barack Obama

When he first ran for president, Barack Obama liked to quote Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. saying , “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

After six years in office, one thing is eminently clear: Even when the White House was lurching from crisis to crisis, the president also was playing a long game on a number of fronts. Recent major announcements were years in the making: a climate deal with China, the beginning of the end of the half-century-long standoff with Cuba, the dramatic decline in the percentage of uninsured thanks to the Affordable Care Acts’s most significant provisions, which didn’t go into effect until years after the bill was passed. And as January gets under way, 21 states have implemented minimum wages increases—a direct outgrowth of the White House strategy to do an end-run around Congress and work with state officials who would back the wage-increases after Obama called for federal action in his 2013 State of the Union address.

Sometimes, however, the president’s willingness to take longer than expected to make change has frustrated supporters and made them into critics. The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is, notably, still open years after Obama vowed to shutter it.

Now, with just two years left in office and an eye on his legacy, any arc bending will have to happen faster. And with only one year before the 2016 presidential campaign begins to impinge upon the White House’s ability to act without concern for immediate electoral fallout, the only year left for Obama to move aggressively is the one we just entered, 2015. That could make the penultimate year of Obama's presidency more interesting than any time since his first two.

First up for the White House will be an effort to bring fresh attention to positive economic news—and to address enduring drags on the economy by announcing new measures on home ownership, college affordability, and job creation. —Garance Franke-Ruta

Congressional Republicans get ready to run — and to govern

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Republican leaders in 2015 will have some big egos to manage, as a well as their new power running Congress. They’ll need to balance their governing agenda against the needs of a slew of potential 2016 presidential hopefuls who have their own agendas to pursue.

Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky are all considering White House bids, as is 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan.

GOP leaders had a preview of how all this could go when the debate over an end-of-year funding bill in December found Cruz playing spoilsport, disrupting his colleagues’ vacation plans by publicly thwarting an agreement to vote on the bill and go home. Cruz wanted Senate Republicans to aggressively protest Obama’s unilateral actions on immigration and threatened to shut down the government again — even as top Republican appropriators said there was no way to defund the executive action to halt the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens.

Indeed, immigration policy could be one of the biggest flashpoints for Republican presidential contenders in the next Congress: Rubio co-sponsored the bipartisan immigration reform bill that failed to become law; Paul has expressed openness to some changes; and Cruz has made repeated stands against most immigration policies that do not deal exclusively with border security. The senators are diverging on other issues as well: Paul supported Obama’s move to begin normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, but Rubio and Cruz staunchly opposed the move.

So expect the media circus to grow with each passing week. New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will have to navigate it all, keeping members in line for votes while giving a select few of them enough room to define their potential presidential candidacies. — Meredith Shiner

When will Elizabeth Warren start using the future tense?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pursued by reporters. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

It has started to become farcical.

A reporter asks the senior senator from Massachusetts if she is going to run for president.

“I am not running for president,” she replies. The reporter asks if she will repeat her statement using the future tense, i.e., I will not run.

And Elizabeth Warren just repeats herself in the present tense.

At some point, probably very soon, this answer is going to become untenable. The next time Warren gets into an exchange with an experienced reporter on this question, she’s not likely to get away with simply repeating herself.

There are no actual signs that Warren is planning to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. She is not hiring staff. She is not sending any signals to her donors. It’s entirely possible that she has used the future tense in a private conversation with Clinton, while explaining that she is keeping her options open publicly to gather momentum and attention for her agenda and her issue set.

But for the moment, as Warren continues to avoid ruling out a presidential run, the organic energy on the left demanding that she run is continuing to build. MoveOn.org is spending $1 million to promote a Draft Warren movement.

This can only go on for so long before the sentiment inside the Clinton world turns from unease (passed off as amusement and condescending golf claps) to alarm. Brushfires cannot be allowed to become full-blown blazes. At some point after the New Year, the Clinton operation may have to send a signal, in not so subtle terms, that it’s time for the patty cake to end and for the future tense to be used.

The longer Warren waits to use it, the more interesting it will be to watch. — Jon Ward

Will Republicans outsource their primary to super-PACs?

Americans for Prosperity Foundation Chairman and major GOP donor David Koch. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

At the annual gathering of Republican governors in Boca Raton, Fla., in mid-November, one top Republican operative who played a key role in the 2012 presidential campaign noticed something strange.

There were at least a half-dozen governors at the meeting who were seriously considering running for president in 2016: Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Perry of Texas, Mike Pence of Indiana and others. But none of them were anywhere as far along in preparing to run for president as Mitt Romney was at this point in 2010.

The operative concluded that the 2016 Republican presidential primary might start later than normal, as potential candidates outsource the building of a campaign operation to super-PACs.

In 2012, super-PACs enabled the underfunded Republican candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to stay in the race longer than would otherwise have been possible, giving them cover on TV. In 2016, expect super-PACs to play a big role again by using unlimited contributions to finance expensive TV air wars. But they could also take on new functions in 2015, piecing together parts of a campaign-in-waiting for likely candidates.

Republicans might want to avoid declaring their candidacies early in 2015 for two reasons. First, it reduces the amount of time that there is a target on their back. Once they say they’re in, the media will cover them far more intensely.

But more importantly, paying for portions of a campaign — potentially building a list, hiring some staff — through a super-PAC is more efficient. It allows deep-pocketed donors who want to play a big role in the campaign to do so, while reserving all the hard money (money given directly to a campaign, subject to Federal Election Commission limits and disclosure rules) for a more compressed period of time.

There are two important caveats here. One: Whoever tries this had better have a good attorney who knows the byzantine campaign finance laws inside and out. And two, if multiple candidates take this route, it’s pretty likely that someone will slip up and commit an FEC violation. — Jon Ward

Obamacare is heading back to court

Visitors line up to enter the Supreme Court in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

On March 4, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement will end up back in front of the Supreme Court.

This time, it might turn ugly for him.

Though the justices saved his health care reform law two years ago in a split decision written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, a new lawsuit, King v. Burwell, arguably raises trickier legal questions. The suit claims that the millions of Americans who bought insurance on the federal exchange, HealthCare.gov, should not actually be eligible for subsidies and tax breaks to help them pay for that coverage, because the original Affordable Care Act language said subsidies were for consumers who bought coverage on exchanges “established by the State.”

Conservatives bringing the suit argue that the word “state” means that only Americans who live in states that started their own insurance exchanges should be eligible for tax subsidies, because the law did not explicitly state that people who buy insurance on the federal exchange are also eligible. More than 30 states did not build their own insurance exchanges, often because of conservative opposition on the ground.

If the court strikes down the subsidies for people in those states, it’s possible the law would unravel, since many Americans can only afford the coverage with the help of subsidies. And it seems beyond improbable that the Republican-led Congress that has sought for so long and in so many different ways to overturn the ACA would move to create new legislation to keep those federal exchange customers in the fold.

As always in the big, controversial cases, it’s nearly impossible to predict which way the court will go. In a similar case, the Fourth Circuit sided with the government, but the D.C. Court of Appeals backed the argument against Obamacare. — Liz Goodwin

Immigration reform will remain a flashpoint

A Central American migrant jumps on a northbound freight train as it pulls out of the station in Arriaga, Mexico. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

As Republicans officially take control of the House and Senate, the ongoing battle between Democrats and Republicans over the fate of the nation's nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants will get even more complicated.

President Barack Obama’s recently announced executive action protecting nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation will go into effect. But conservative Republicans have vowed to fight back against it, and 24 states in December filed suit against the Obama administration over the executive action, arguing that the move infringes on their constitutional rights.

Some House Republicans have also threatened to pass legislation to make it harder for the Obama administration to process the millions of applications for temporary work visas and relief from deportation. Meanwhile, the federal government has said it’s adding 1,000 new workers to process the coming flood of applications.

Obama recently reminded Republicans that he is not afraid to use his veto power, which would complicate any of their plans to try to block his action on immigration. “I suspect there are going to be some times where I've got to pull that pen out,” he told NPR.

Republicans also have to worry about the 2016 presidential election, when they must capture a sizable minority of the growing Hispanic vote in the country and may be hurt by pro-deportation rhetoric. Republican Senator John McCain recently told reporters that he hopes to pass immigration reform out of the Republican-controlled Senate next year that would strengthen the border and provide for more visas for skilled high-tech foreign workers, a key request from business leaders.

But such a move would fall far short of what Obama promised to deliver seven years ago — a path to citizenship for the country’s millions of undocumented immigrants. — Liz Goodwin