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Crunch time for Obama and Washington

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
April 9, 2013 -- Updated 1527 GMT (2327 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: President Barack Obama's legacy could be shaped in a couple of weeks
  • Obama has been reaching out to GOP, seeking progress on budget, guns, immigration
  • She says Obama has been taking risks in the interest of seeking compromise
  • Borger: President's strategy is smart, but is Congress up to the challenge?

Washington (CNN) -- It's not often that a presidential to-do list (and legacy-making agenda) comes down to a couple of key weeks, but here we are: gun control, immigration reform and the budget -- all front and center, right now.

It's an odd time in Washington. The president has been dating Republicans, dining with senators with whom he has hardly spoken in the past. Republicans seem to believe they can actually work with the president -- on immigration, at least.

As for guns, well, some in the GOP seem ready to filibuster an issue -- background checks -- that has overwhelming public support. "That won't do us a lot of good," moans one GOP pollster. "We will look like the party taking extremist positions."

Should anyone be able to buy guns? Share your views

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

Remember how well that worked with women in the last election?

And then there's the budget. The president decided to propose one this year that starts with compromise -- containing some of the entitlement reforms that he worked out with House Speaker John Boehner before the "grand bargain" became the grand failure. A couple of senior GOP pollsters tell me that they can't quite figure out why the president did something guaranteed to annoy his liberal base.

How about this for an answer: When all else fails, it doesn't hurt to look credible. Better yet, it doesn't hurt actually to be credible.

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After all, what's the downside? "When you are dealing with dysfunction, the best you can do is demonstrate that you are reasonable," one senior administration official tells me. "The alternative would be throwing fuel on the flames. We need to be serious here."

It's about time. On all fronts.

Understand this: This is a not a strategy hatched by a bunch of Pollyannas at the White House. It is borne of necessity, and bred with an understanding of a public that has just about had it with Washington. The president played tough in the sequester fight -- calling for new revenues -- and he lost. Now he's not overplaying his hand; he's playing it smart.

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On immigration, he's hanging back, letting congressional negotiators take the lead. He was called out for doing that on health care reform -- rightly so, allowing top Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to manage an unpopular process and produce an unpopular bill. But this time, it's different: Republicans understand that immigration reform has now become a gateway issue. 'It's now a basic way for us to find our way back into national politics," one GOP pollster tells me. "It doesn't solve our problem with Latino voters by itself, but it helps."

Even polls show that a majority of GOP voters -- once opposed to reform -- are now on board with some version of it. The notion of a "pathway to citizenship" still stirs all kinds of fears about amnesty with the GOP base, but that's less of an issue these days: All things considered, any gain in Latino voters outweighs some shrinkage of the base.

It's a trickier route for the president on guns. Barack Obama didn't intend for gun control to be part of his second-term legacy; it came to be after Newtown. And this is an issue, by the way, that splits the Democratic Party more than it splits the GOP. A half-dozen Democratic Senate races in pro-gun states next year could hang in the balance. And if the Democrats lose those senators -- and can't break a GOP filibuster -- it's dangerous for them, too.

Not as dangerous, of course, as the GOP holding up any vote on a gun bill. That, I would argue, could have a great deal of impact on the midterm elections. Why? Because the president will continue to take the issue directly to the voters, 90% of whom agree with him on background checks.

It's a delicate time here in Washington. If nothing happens on guns, for instance, what about the rest of the Obama agenda? "If you can't pass a bill on guns in this environment, what can you ever do?" asks one senior administration official. "It sets the bar so high for anything, people will be demoralized."

The result? Retreat. Maybe some sort of immigration reform passes (it's in everyone's self-interest) but no tax reform. No serious entitlement reform. Nothing big on the agenda, just small-scale items.

Perfect for politicians unable to respond to crisis, much less the will of the people.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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