WASHINGTON — For President Barack Obama, the outcome of this week’s fiscal fights with Republicans could have broad consequences for his stalled second-term agenda.
A favorable deal for the White House might give Obama an opening to marginalize the tea party Republicans who have tried to win concessions from him in order to reopen the government and raise the nation’s debt ceiling. But if no agreement is reached by Thursday’s debt limit deadline, Obama will become the first modern president to preside over a government default, a dubious distinction with potentially calamitous economic consequences that could consume the White House for the foreseeable future.
Another, perhaps more likely, option: Obama ends up signing short term bills that keep Washington in the never-ending cycle of deadline-driven budget battles. For Obama, that would mean fiscal issues would keep consuming the oxygen in the nation’s capital at a time when he is already watching his window for passing significant domestic legislation close.
“It’s a ticking clock,” Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, said of presidential second terms. “He’s already into the red zone in terms of getting things done.”
Even before Washington ground to a halt this month, Obama was struggling to score significant legislative victories in his second term. A push for stricter gun control laws collapsed in the Senate. An immigration reform bill did get through the Senate, but stalled in the House and the future of the landmark legislation is deeply uncertain.
And there has been virtually no legislative progress on a host of other issues Obama pledged to tackle in his second term, including expanding early childhood education and raising the minimum wage.
But missteps by Republicans during the current budget fight helped Obama. Recent polls show GOP lawmakers bearing the brunt of the public’s blame for the shutdown, including a new Washington Post-ABC News survey out Monday that showed 74 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Republicans in Congress handled the issue, compared to 53 percent who disapprove of Obama’s handling of it.
Republican strategist Dan Schnur said even if some GOP lawmakers start tilting to the center after the current budget battles, the president will still face an uphill climb in getting big-ticket legislation done in the coming months.
“There are going to be so many hard feelings on every side that it’s hard to see a great deal of productive legislation coming in the immediate aftermath,” said Schnur, director of a political institute at the University of Southern California.