For President Barack Obama, the opening months of his second term have been a frustrating reminder of the limits of presidential power and the durability of the Washington political apparatus he disdains.
Obama has yet to achieve a significant second term legislative victory, a task that will only get harder as the calendar inches closer to next year’s midterm elections. A trio of controversies roiling Washington have emboldened Republicans eager to gain an advantage over the president and revealed a Democratic establishment willing to publicly second-guess the White House. And Obama, who ran for office as an outsider pledging to overcome Washington’s bitter partisan divide, acknowledges he’s made little progress on that front.
“What’s blocking us right now is the sort of hyper-partisanship in Washington that, frankly, I was hoping to overcome in 2008,” Obama told donors at a Democratic fundraiser last week.
Obama’s frustration with the ways of Washington has become increasingly evident as the White House grapples with separate controversies: a resurgent GOP investigation into the attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, the targeting of conservative political groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department’s seizure of phone records from journalists at The Associated Press and, in another case, reading the e-mails of Fox News reporter James Rosen.
The typically even-keeled Obama became visibly angry recently when discussing the Benghazi investigations, casting the Republican effort as a “sideshow” and a “political circus.” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer took to Sunday talk shows to accuse Republicans of trying to drag Washington into “a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions.” And White House press secretary Jay Carney mockingly suggested a reporter was being “petulant” while pressing for details about when the president’s team knew about the IRS targeting, though Carney later acknowledged that some criticism of the White House’s response to the matter were “legitimate.”
Behind the scenes, the White House has signaled an awareness that it needs to strengthen its alliances within Washington. New chief of staff Denis McDonough has been a driving force behind Obama’s recent dinners with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, outings that were unheard of during his first term. And McDonough has also been inviting Democratic strategists to the White House for brainstorming sessions and to ask for their support of Obama’s policies.
Obama advisers hope that Congress will pass a White House-backed immigration bill later this year, which would be a big victory for the president. The Republican Party’s willingness to consider overhauling the nation’s immigration laws is a direct result of the overwhelming support Obama received from Hispanic voters in the November election. But the president has been limited in his ability to publicly campaign for the bill, given the fear among its bipartisan architects that his connection with the legislation could scare away Republican votes.