Ramesh Ponnuru

Obama’s ambitious agenda seems to have stalled

Updated: 2013-04-20T23:51:16Z

By Ramesh Ponnuru

Bloomberg View

President Barack Obama’s second term has so far been a story of high liberal hopes and scant liberal achievements.

The president has been re-elected, demographic trends favor the growth of his coalition and his opposition is confused and divided. One might expect Obama to be enacting the legislative agenda of that rising coalition. Yet the White House has to be disappointed, whatever it says, by the way the second term has been going.

The president’s poll numbers have been falling since December. His average job-approval rating, compiled on Pollster.com, has been below 50 percent for weeks.

And liberal policy gains have been sparse — mostly unrelated to Obama. His campaign for new gun regulations has fizzled. Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate Democrats, even kept an assault-weapons ban out of the gun bill because it had fewer than 40 supporters. That’s in a chamber with 55 Democrats.

Liberals can celebrate the rapidly increasing support for same-sex marriage. Most of the action on that issue, though, is taking place in state legislatures, referendums and the courts. Obama hasn’t had much to do with it.

The liberals’ main policy achievement since the election was the tax increase at the start of the year, which led some to suggest that Obama had broken GOP opposition to higher taxes. But the most powerful force in that debate was inertia, not Obama. Taxes were already scheduled to rise.

The fiscal fights since then haven’t gone well for the White House. Its scare talk about the sequestration was quietly abandoned because most Americans weren’t seeing any effect from it in their own lives.

Republicans have effectively sidelined him by insisting that future budget bills will come from “regular order” in Congress rather than an extraordinary negotiation with the president. He has also sidelined himself by putting out a budget only after the House and the Senate had passed theirs, and including less deficit reduction than either of them.

There is still a chance of a breakthrough on immigration, although official Washington is overconfident on that issue. There seems to be a tacit agreement among congressional Republicans and Democrats alike that a bill is more likely to pass the less the president is involved in drafting it.

The president’s recent “charm offensive” may be an attempt to make him relevant again; reading between the lines of some news accounts about it suggests as much. If so, it was an extraordinary pass for him to reach just weeks into his second term.

Obama’s inability to make the most of what ought to be liberalism’s moment may reflect his weak relationships with lawmakers in both parties and lack of interest in strengthening them. That complaint is often heard on Capitol Hill. Republicans also say they prefer to deal with Vice President Joe Biden, who negotiates, rather than with Obama, who lectures.

It may also be a result of the geography of Obama’s majority coalition. His voters are concentrated in major metropolitan areas. Even if the last round of gerrymandering hadn’t favored the Republicans, it would be hard to assemble a House majority from Obama’s voters. The Democratic majority in the Senate, meanwhile, exists only because it includes candidates elected in more conservative states that voted for Mitt Romney. That’s why the Senate debated such weak gun legislation and why it isn’t debating climate-change legislation at all.

Obama outlined an ambitious liberal vision in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses. It doesn’t look as if he’s going to do much to advance it.

To reach Ramesh Ponnuru, send email to rponnuru@bloomberg.net.

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