Why Is it So Hard for Obama to Implement His Agenda?

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So far, there are three items on President Obama’s second-term agenda: Gun control, immigration reform, and a “grand bargain” on debt and deficits. And so far, Obama has yet to make real headway on either one, despite winning a solid victory in last year’s elections, and gaining allies in the Senate. This raises the question: What—if anything—can he do to press his agenda forward? One answer, floated earlier this year by centrist pundits, is for Obama to build better relationships with lawmakers on the Hill. Unfortunately, as Jackie Calmes notes for The New York Times, it’s not that simple:

Members of both parties say Mr. Obama faces a conundrum with his legislative approach to a deeply polarized Congress. In the past, when he has stayed aloof from legislative action, Republicans and others have accused him of a lack of leadership; when he has gotten involved, they have complained that they could not support any bill so closely identified with Mr. Obama without risking the contempt of conservative voters.

As Calmes points out, working with Republicans only works when there’s something to work on. If a compromise on immigration reform happens, it will be because it’s the only one Republicans see as in their own interest, given the party’s deep unpopularity with Latino and Asian American voters. On everything else, Republicans have no reason to negotiate, and so they don’t.

But this hasn’t stopped pundits from offering advice on how the administration should work with Republicans to “get stuff done.” And judging from the latest White House budget, Obama has taken it to heart—his proposed cuts from Social Security and Medicare are an obvious attempt to appeal to pundits who hold “entitlement cuts” as the Holy Grail of policymaking.

In reality, there’s only one thing that can help Obama push his agenda through Congress—a Democratic Congress. As long as Republicans have a grip on the House of Representatives, and as long as the GOP remains unsupportive of compromise and disinterested in policymaking, we should expect gridlock in government. Put another way, it’s no accident the 111th Congress—which began with Obama’s first term—was one of the most productive in recent memory; it was controlled, from top to bottom, by a single party.

Which is to say that if you’re interested in a Congress that “does something,” you should wish Obama success in his new effort to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives.