Barack Obama

Obama seeking to exploit Republican divides in second term

The failure of his first-term emphasis on bipartisanship has made Obama more determined to challenge the Republican opposition

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2013, 5:36am

In US President Barack Obama's first term, a promise of bipartisanship withered on stony ground; as his second begins, he has openly embraced confrontation.

On a parade of hot-button political issues, including the budget, gun control and immigration, Obama has begun to hammer on weak points in the Republican coalition.

He has made little effort to woo members of the opposition in Congress, whose positions he has characterised publicly as "intransigent," "extreme" and "absurd." Instead, he appears intent on dividing them.

That approach has unified Democrats, who remain staunchly supportive of the president, while exacerbating splits in Republican ranks, according to polls. While the strategy involves considerable risk, Obama and his aides seem convinced it offers their best hope of winning major legislative victories in an era of deep partisan divisions in Washington and the wider electorate.

The administration wants to "stay away from inside-the-Beltway, elite negotiations and try to pursue an outside-in-strategy, where the president seeks to mobilise public opinion and put pressure on a minority of Republicans," said William Galston of the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank. The idea, he said, is to find weak spots in the GOP coalition, "stick a wedge into the crack and wiggle it back and forth until it breaks".

During the first term, Obama and his aides engaged in lengthy negotiations and offered concessions aimed at winning a handful of Republican votes during battles over health care and the economic stimulus.

Their efforts proved futile, whether because of Obama's own inability to reach across the aisle (the Republican view), the intransigence of his opposition (the Democratic version) or the inherent problems of compromise in a divided country.

During the presidential campaign, Obama and top aides suggested the Republican determination to oppose him would wane if he won re-election. "The fever will break," was a favoured White House metaphor.

That hasn't happened, and the current White House strategy tacitly acknowledges that bridging the partisan gaps will probably remain beyond Obama's power. At the same time, Obama and his advisers feel more confident they can prevail - as they did during the "fiscal cliff" battle over tax rates in December.

White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said Obama was not adopting "a confrontational strategy" but acting confidently "with the experience of four years".

"His intent isn't to cause fracases in the Republican Party," she added. "The way he looks at it is, these are causes that can actually bring our country together."

Republicans disagree, of course, and say Obama's approach guarantees nothing will get done.

"The president is really good at campaigning and really bad at governing," said Republican strategist Whit Ayres. "Anything that's going to get through this Congress is going to have to be done in a bipartisan way," he said, but Obama has shown "no inclination or ability" to accomplish that.

"This White House hasn't seemed to have figured out that the election is over, and the time for governing has come," he added.

Whichever view is right, the legislative clock runs quickly for second-term presidents.

Next year, members of Congress will begin to focus on the 2014 midterm election. After that, the 2016 presidential contest will rapidly take shape. Even if he avoids the kinds of scandals or blunders that hindered the second terms of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, history suggests Obama has a relatively short period to collect legislative victories.

"In second terms the window of opportunity is pretty narrow, maybe 18 months," said University of Texas professor H.W. Brands, one of a group of historians which has met several times with Obama for off-the-record dinners to discuss the presidency. "After that, they are really lame ducks."

Obama and his aides dismiss the idea that a softer approach to the opposing party would lead to a better result.

If Republican opposition cracks, the president can win major victories. If the Republicans vote down his proposals, "the Republicans are now the party that's viewed as being fundamentally intransigent," and the votes could help Democratic candidates in future elections, said Ruy Teixeira of the Centre for American Progress, a Democratic think tank with close ties to the administration.

Either way, he said, White House officials believe "it's going to be a net benefit to them".