Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

How progress is possible in Obama's second term

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:28 AM EST, Mon November 12, 2012
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
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
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.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
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
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
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
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
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
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
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
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
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
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT