Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

How progress is possible in Obama's second term

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
November 12, 2012 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
In the president's second term, political incentives for both parties could inspire legislative breakthroughs, says Julian Zelizer.
In the president's second term, political incentives for both parties could inspire legislative breakthroughs, says Julian Zelizer.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Second-term presidents generally have trouble with Congress, says Julian Zelizer
  • The political parties are as polarized as ever, he says
  • But political incentives for both parties could inspire legislative breakthroughs, Zelizer says
  • Zelizer: Deficit reduction, immigration and climate change could be breakthrough issues

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- When Washington gets back to work, the situation will be difficult. President Obama won a sound re-election victory, doing very well in the Electoral College and winning the popular vote by more than 3 million votes. He trounced Mitt Romney in almost all the battleground states and he will return with a larger and more energized Senate majority.

Yet President Obama likely understands that elections don't remake the political system. The parties remain as polarized as ever, and the political process will be as difficult as it has been since the first day he took office. Republicans retained control of the House, where they can make it hard for the president to move his agenda forward and can place immense pressure on him to curtail spending.

While Democrats control the Senate, with 54 votes, Republicans control the tools of the Senate minority -- namely the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass any major piece of legislation. Exit polls showed that the public is not satisfied with the status quo, many voters opposed the idea of an activist government to solve problems, and President Obama struggled with some key constituencies, including older and suburban voters.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

In general, second-term presidents, even those with landslide victories, have trouble with Congress (think of FDR after 1936), and President Obama must spend much of his political capital making sure that existing programs, like the Affordable Health Care Act, are implemented effectively.

Opinion: Lame duck Congress, go home

Despite these challenges, political incentives for both parties could inspire legislative breakthroughs in several areas. President Obama does not have to remain content with the domestic agenda he has already achieved. He could succeed like Ronald Reagan in 1986, when Congress passed, with bipartisan support, a major tax reform bill that closed many loopholes and lowered rates.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In the short-term, deficit reduction offers the greatest potential for such a breakthrough. The process toward reducing the deficit will begin even if the president and Congress take no action.

The 2011 Deficit Control Act will require $100 billion in spending cuts starting in January. At the same time, the current income tax rates are set to expire on December 31, along with the Social Security payroll tax holiday. By making progress on a "grand bargain" over long-term deficit reduction, one that both parties could live with, President Obama could steal this issue away from the Republicans, positioning himself as the guardian of fiscal discipline just as President Clinton was able to do in the 1990s.

Now that Obama is freed from some of the political pressure from the left, whom he needed to mobilize voters for his re-election, he will have more room to maneuver. While Republicans don't want to hand the president any victories, they, too, would have incentives to agree so that they could show to their voters that they had delivered something big since taking over the House in 2010. On Wednesday, Speaker John Boehner indicated he would bend on raising revenue as part of the deal. The deal could include another tax reform measure, something that both parties have hinted at.

Obama won on American's "aspirations"
Obama Wins Florida
Lessons in "Lincoln" for Obama

There are also policy issues that grow directly out of the election results. President Obama has been promising Latino voters that he would reform immigration policies. He has pledged to renew his push to pass the DREAM Act, a bill that has been stopped by Republicans, which would help almost 1.7 million young immigrants become citizens.

The huge Latino vote for the president, which played a critical role in battleground states like Colorado and Nevada, should bolster his resolve to take on this issue. And many Republicans will understand that the GOP's hard-line anti-immigration elements have become extraordinarily costly to the party. For more than a decade, those in the Republican Party who favor liberalized immigration policies, including George W. Bush and much of the business community, have been stymied by their colleagues.

Now, as Republicans look at the Electoral College math that led to Romney's defeat, there will be intensified pressure for them to change their anti-immigration reputation. "It's clear to me," Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran told Politico, "if Republicans are going to have the opportunity to be in the majority, we clearly have to determine how we deal with minority and Latino voters. In some fashion, the way we have dealt with immigration gives us a black eye."

Opinion: Both parties must lead on immigration

Finally, there are long-term issues that might be on the radar as a result of crisis. The storms that have devastated sections of the country have given climate change more attention than ever. The impact on wealthier suburban communities has created more political support for addressing an issue that was largely ignored throughout the 2012 campaign. By producing legislation that deals with this grave problem, such as limits on domestic oil and gas drilling and more investments in solar and wind energy, each party could make progress toward solidifying support in key middle-class constituencies that are still struggling to dig out from the storms.

Nothing is inevitable in American politics. The history of Washington is filled with moments when something should have happened but didn't. Politics has a way of sidetracking progress on almost any issue. Talk about compromise that often follows an election is cheap, frequently leading to nothing.

The potential for some important breakthroughs, however, is there. The election's outcome gives both parties reasons to make deals with each other so they can each make gains with voters in 2014 and 2016. Sometimes, when politics and policy converge, progress in Washington is possible.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT