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Grading Obama's first 100 days into second term

May 5, 2013 at 4:09 AM   |   Comments

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President Obama passed the 100-day mark of his second term vowing to soldier on for his agenda while recognizing the limitations of working within a divided government.

Yes, things are dysfunctional, he said, but he's still optimistic.

"I'm actually confident that there are a range of things that we're going to be able to get done," Obama said during a news conference last week. "I feel confident that the bipartisan work that's been done on immigration reform will result in a bill that passes the Senate, passes the House, and gets on my desk. And that's going to be historic achievement, and I've been very complimentary of the efforts of both Republicans and Democrats in those efforts."

Political observers give Obama props for pushing an aggressive agenda that includes immigration reform and gun control. He's stirred the pot and generated conversation on many issues.

Still, Obama doesn't appear as focused on matters such as the budget, and in fact, seems adrift, earning him a B- from one political observer.

"There're some signs that he's less focused" on some issues, such as the budget-related matter, Lawrence Jacobs, director for the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute and Department of Political Science.

What must be remembered, though, is the "brutal environment" that is Washington these days, Jacobs said.

There was a compromise on background checks for gun purchases hammered out between two senators -- a Democrat and a Republican -- who are members of the National Rifle Association. Obama used his pulpit to speak about "commonsense" anti-gun-violence legislation.

It went down in the Senate.

Obama showed willingness to consider painful cuts in entitlements and for programs he typically champions to try to avoid the across-the-board spending cuts, known in Washington parlance as the sequester, without success.

"What did he get in return? Campaign fodder," Jacobs said.

And the window for him to advance his agenda in Congress is rapidly closing, considering the 2014 midterms are, essentially, just around the bend.

Just how he proposes to revive his political prospects after setbacks on gun control and the sequester remains unknown.

One questioner noted neither the gun legislation he championed nor his work to avoid the sequester passed muster in Congress and asked if he still had the "juice" to advance his agenda on Capitol Hill.

When stated that way, Obama said, "maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly. You know, I think it's a little, as Mark Twain said, you know, 'Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.'"

Later he said, "But, you know, ... you seem to suggest that somehow these folks over there have no responsibilities, and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That's their job.

They're elected," he said. "Members of Congress are elected in order to do what's right for their constituencies and for the American people."

Obama held his cards close during his news conference, offering little insight into how he intends to proceed with any of the unfinished items on his agenda.

But one area Obama could actively pursue would have an enormous effect is his use of administrative and judicial powers, Jacobs said, an area he says the president has been "asleep at the switch."

"He's been kind of passive on that ... it's almost shocking," Jacobs said.

It would take political will and political capital, but Obama could effect significant change without congressional approval.

Obama's focus can't be solely on what he can get Congress to pass because it's a "false hope," Jacobs said. So maybe it's time for him to look to shaping his legacy through his powers in the administrative and judicial realm.

"There needs to be modesty," Jacobs said, noting Obama is "stalemated by conservatives in the House and a Senate that's tied up in knots."

"He finds himself in difficult circumstances," the professor said.

While Obama can't force lawmakers to his will because Congress is independent, "there are areas where he can have influence," Jacobs said. "The president has enormous power when it's exercised in a focused way."

Obama can exercise power through regulatory agencies and departments such as Treasury, Health and Human Services and the Interior, as well as through legislation such as the financial reform law known as the Dodd-Frank Act.

Using his administrative and judicial authority is how President Ronald Reagan wielded huge influence, Jacobs said.

And the clock is ticking, Jacobs said because of 2014. Democrats, as evidenced by some of the votes on the background checks measure, are skittish.

Historically, he said, the "the record is terrible" for presidents in the sixth year of their administration at the polls.

"The hourglass has turned," Jacobs said. "We're heading into the 2014 election cycle. I'd say he has until fall [for action on his agenda]. His honeymoon has blown by."

Some strategists told The Hill Obama needs to take his message to the people living in lawmakers' home districts.

"Power politics since the time of Cicero is effectively an exercise in physics," said Chris Lehane, a California-based Democratic strategist, "and the physics here in this current age of paralysis is to create enough public pressure in targeted states and districts to force an official to take action."

Other strategists say Obama needs to keep the conversation going and focus on the positive, even though he's had some failures recently.

Still other Democratic strategists told The Hill Obama is making the right choices so far in his second term -- he's engaging lawmakers and taking advantages of the presidency.

"I didn't realize President Obama had lost his mojo," said strategist Jamal Simmons.

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