Worse before Better

“For Obama, things will get worse in 2011 before they get better in 2012”

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 22, 2010


For President Barack Obama, the end for his first year and second years in office could not have been more contrasting. After an unforgettable 2009—which started with his inauguration as the first African American president and ended with the Nobel Peace Prize—his second year came to an end with a sense of disappointment. As he prepares for the next two years, Obama should expect a difficult first year. However, because of Republican mistakes, he should also look forward to a more successful 2012.


Though the hopes many people placed on Obama when he first took office were exaggerated, the President nonetheless had a good first year. As he was increasingly unpopular in his second term, Bush’s departure helped Obama extend his honeymoon. The effect of the stimulus package also helped the government in 2009. However, 2010 was not quite as good for the President. The sluggish economy, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (with greater U.S. involvement, and casualties, in the latter) and the fact that the White House was losing the public opinion dispute on issues such as health care and tax reform, ended up putting Obama on the defensive. The result of the midterm elections was a story of foretold defeat. Democrats lost more seats than in any other modern midterm election.


The concessions Obama made to Republicans on tax issues to speed up passage of the repealing the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy for gays in the military dramatically showed the shift in the balance of power in Washington. The President is likely to get the Senate to approve the new arms treaty with Russia, but he failed to get a vote on the Dream Act—an initiative that would provide a path to legalization to young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents and who attend college or serve in the military. Though Obama can claim a new stimulus package, his policy reversal on ending the Bush tax cuts was an additional defeat for the President in an overall bad year. After Republicans take control of the House in January, they will to dominate the legislative agenda. Republican issues such as cutting taxes and being tough on illegal immigration will likely dominate the agenda during the first few months.


Yet, there are three issues that will help Democrats overcome the Republican revival and help Obama position himself as the front runner for the 2012 presidential election.


The first area is fiscal spending. The Tea Party campaigned on cutting spending to balance the budget, but there is no agreement among Republicans on what should be cut. Republicans have made it clear that there will be not cuts in entitlements or defense. Since those are the items that can be quickly cut, it is unlikely that there will be any real cuts. As Republicans oppose raising taxes, the deficit will continue to increase. In having shown willingness to compromise with Republicans, Obama will be in a better position than Republican presidential candidates when it comes to discussing responsible fiscal policies.


The second issue is immigration. In opposing a vote in the Senate on the Dream Act, Republicans have decided to take a risky gamble. As they seek to capture the support of the manufacturing sector middle class—the hardest hit by the 2008 crisis, and comprised mostly of Caucasians—Republicans have taken on a strong anti-immigrant stance, which is difficult to distinguish from being anti-Hispanic. Because Latinos are the fastest growing group (already 16% of the national population) and almost 27% of new births, Republicans are making a strategist long term mistake. True, Latinos vote at lower percentages than the rest. This is partly because many of them—about 9 million—are undocumented or not yet citizens (6 million) and thus not eligible to vote. Also, low income and young people vote less. But Latinos tend to vote more when they perceive politicians are attacking them. Also, as more Latinos born in the United States reach voting age, Hispanics will have more weight in many key states. In short, the Republican strategy is bound to lose older white voters who will die while it fails to win new voters.  


The third issue is the presidential nomination process. The Republican Party is captured by rightwing conservatives. Presidential hopefuls will inevitably move to the right to win the support of likely primary voters. Whereas leftwing democrats are upset with Obama for adopting centrist positions, rightwing Republicans will reward primary candidates who move right and punish those who campaign on centrist policies. Since most Americans are centrist, the Republican primary will help Obama consolidate as a pragmatic centrist willing to break with his own party to adopt moderate policies. Republicans will be cornered as a party of rightwing extremists.


As Obama prepares for his third year, short-term prospects are not good for his presidency. Yet, as 2011 progresses and approaches the next presidential election cycle, the forecast for Obama’s presidency and re-election chances look much better.