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 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
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?
ADVERTISEMENT