What Can Obama Still Do?

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 10 2013 @ 5:45pm

Last week, MacGillis argued that Obama’s presidency is far from finished. Douthat pushes back:

Obama’s struggles have inspired comparisons to George W. Bush’s second term, and invocations of Hurricane Katrina and Iraq. But of course all kinds of consequential choices were made in the Bush White House after his approval rating reached the flirting-with-dismal level where Obama’s numbers are today — with the Alito confirmation, the Iraqi “surge,” and TARP probably looming largest, and lesser examples abounding as well.

But contra MacGillis, I think most of the writers making the Obama-Bush comparisons understand that point, and they would presumably say, “okay, yes, Bush retained the powers of the presidency, but somewhere between the failure of Social Security reform and the 2006 thumping he passed over a crucial threshold where 1) he no longer had a hope in Hades of moving big-ticket legislation through Congress and 2) he no longer had a plausible path to recovering the public’s trust.” That’s what Washington scribes tend to mean when they apply the shorthand term “finished” to a presidency, and it seems perfectly reasonable to look at a chief executive in Obama’s position — his second-term numbers mirroring Bush rather than Reagan or Clinton, his base eroding, his party’s odds of losing the Senate rising, his defenders beginning to talk about long-term policy vindication more than short-term political success — and ask whether he’s reached that point as well.

Ezra thinks not:

Though Obama isn’t going to pass major new laws in his second term, he’s going to have plenty of opportunity to implement major laws from his first term. Obamacare’s roll-out was disastrous, but the program could be a success by 2017. On Tuesday, the Volcker rule is dropping — a reminder that the Obama administration is still engaged in a difficult and complex effort to re-regulate the financial system. And then there’s the effort to use authority under existing environmental laws to regulate carbon emissions from existing power sources, which could prove a significant climate legacy for a president who hasn’t been able to pass a climate bill.

All that’s before getting to foreign policy, where Obama also has considerable autonomy. A successful rapprochement with Iran would be a very big deal. So, too, would be destroying Syria’s chemical weapons — particularly if it’s somehow coupled with an end to Syria’s civil war. And who knows what other opportunities in the foreign policy realm will emerge before 2017?