WASHINGTON – For President Barack Obama, the opening months of his second term have been a frustrating reminder of the limits of presidential power and the durability of the Washington political apparatus he disdains.
Obama has yet to achieve a significant second term legislative victory, a task that will only get harder as the calendar inches closer to next year's midterm elections. A trio of controversies roiling Washington have emboldened Republicans eager to gain an advantage over the president and revealed a Democratic establishment willing to publicly second-guess the White House. And Obama, who ran for office as an outsider pledging to overcome Washington's bitter partisan divide, acknowledges he's made little progress on that front.
"What's blocking us right now is the sort of hyper-partisanship in Washington that, frankly, I was hoping to overcome in 2008," Obama told donors at a Democratic fundraiser last week.
Obama's frustration with the ways of Washington has become increasingly evident as the White House grapples with separate controversies: a resurgent GOP investigation into the attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, the targeting of conservative political groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department's seizure of phone records from journalists at The Associated Press and, in another case, reading the emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen.
The typically even-keeled Obama became visibly angry recently when discussing the Benghazi investigations, casting the Republican effort as a "sideshow" and a "political circus." White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer took to Sunday talk shows to accuse Republicans of trying to drag Washington into "a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions." And White House press secretary Jay Carney mockingly suggested a reporter was being "petulant" while pressing for details about when the president's team knew about the IRS targeting, though Carney later acknowledged that some criticism of the White House's response to the matter were "legitimate."
Driving at least part of the White House's response to the controversies is its well-known contempt for "establishment" Washington, including the cadre of political strategists in both parties that are quick to offer up analysis or a provocative quote and a fast-moving media culture that can quickly turn a problem into a scandal.
"It's clear to him and everyone at the White House the difference between a legitimate issue and something that's ginned up for political purposes," said former Obama aide Ben LaBolt, noting the White House's particular displeasure for those "who want to come up with explosive quotes that get them in the news cycle."
Behind the scenes, the White House has signaled an awareness that it needs to strengthen its alliances within Washington. New chief of staff Denis McDonough has been a driving force behind Obama's recent dinners with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, outings that were unheard of during his first term. And McDonough has also been inviting Democratic strategists to the White House for brainstorming sessions and to ask for their support of Obama's policies.
But perhaps most important to the White House are polls suggesting the controversies have done little damage to the president's standing with the public. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll showed 53 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing – virtually the same as his approval rating before the controversies erupted.
However, Obama has had mixed results turning public support into legislative victories. He failed in his efforts earlier this year to tighten background checks for gun purchasers, a policy backed by roughly 90 percent of Americans. He's also made little progress toward getting Republicans to sign on to a "grand bargain" for reducing the deficit despite polls showing the public backs plans similar to the president's, which would include both tax increases and spending cuts.
Republican strategist Kevin Madden said it does Obama little good if all he does is win fights "over who is going to come out of one of these skirmishes with a higher approval rating."
"He's very good and very interested in the pageantry of politics, but he's very bad at the hard work it takes in order to govern," said Madden, who advised last year's GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The White House, when asked for examples of Obama's ability to turn public support into legislative success, points to the president's successful efforts last year to get young people to urge Congress to stop an increase in student loan interest rates. With the same issue now back on the table, Obama's team will try to replicate last year's efforts, with the president scheduled to appear with college students at a White House event Friday.
Obama advisers also hope that Congress will pass a White House-backed immigration bill later this year, which would be a big victory for the president. The Republican Party's willingness to consider overhauling the nation's immigration laws is a direct result of the overwhelming support Obama received from Hispanic voters in the November election. But the president has been limited in his ability to publicly campaign for the bill, given the fear among its bipartisan architects that his connection with the legislation could scare away Republican votes.
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