Come January, for the first time in eight years, the Republican Party will control the House and the Senate. That’s not exactly good news for President Obama, as he tries to both cement his legacy and achieve meaningful goals on subjects he cares deeply about — like immigration, climate change, economic policy and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, among other things.
But Obama’s challenging two-year political future is hardly an anomaly. If anything, it’s the norm for modern two-term presidents. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all faced the same conundrum — dealing with a Congress controlled by the opposite party — at the end of their second terms, but each president still managed to pass some meaningful reforms. The key question is which lesson Obama takes from his predecessors: Should he be conciliatory, or confrontational?
Reagan never had a Republican House, and his party lost control of the Senate in his last midterm election. To make matters worse, “the Gipper” was fresh off the Iran-Contra scandal, in which his administration secretly sold arms to Iran in hopes of securing the release of U.S. hostages. The money that generated was then used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras, a move that was banned by Congress.
Despite the incident, Reagan still managed to pass the groundbreaking McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which still continues to provide federal funds to homeless shelter programs. He also ushered in the end of the Cold War by hammering out an arms deal with the Soviet Union through multiple rounds of negotiations and summits with Mikhail Gorbachev. His famous “tear down this wall” speech occurred in 1987 — the second to last year of his presidency.
The lesson for Obama? The opportunity of a foreign policy breakthrough is still very real. Presidents, even when obstructed at home, have enormous latitude beyond America’s shores.
“A big part of Reagan’s legacy had to do with Gorbachev,” said presidential historian and Rice University professor David Brinkley. “With foreign policy, you never know when an opportunity might open.” In Obama’s case, that could mean, Iran, ISIS, or any number of other issues.
Clinton already had both chambers of Congress dominated by the GOP before his final midterm elections. Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, described the Clinton model in his last few years as “agreeing to do what the opposition wants” on issues such as welfare reform and deficit reduction. He also signed the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act of 2000, which drew the ire of progressives concerned with human rights abuses.
Clinton, of course, was dogged by the Monica Lewinsky scandal during his last few years in office, and Republicans used it as a tool to undermine the administration. Obama could face his own controversies with, say, Benghazi or the Lois Lerner/IRS scandals.
In terms of capitulation to the opposition party, Clinton during that time signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, a financial deregulation bill that repealed part of the Glass-Steagall Act. It easily passed in the Senate 90-8 but had less support among Democrats in the House. Some critics have contended that its passage helped create the conditions that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis that precipitated the Great Recession.
Similarly, Zelizer said there may be issues Republicans care about that Obama might be willing to compromise on, such as tax reform and trade.
And most recently, the model set by Bush in his last two years (after Democrats captured majorities in the House and the Senate during his last midterm) was one of governing through crisis. Bush announced a surge of operations in Iraq, and following the financial crisis of 2008, easily passed a bipartisan bailout package that totaled over $700 billion. Of course, Obama surely isn’t hoping for a 2008-style crisis — but if one presents itself, the mood in the capital could become a lot more conciliatory.
That could ring somewhat true on crises like Ebola, for instance. Obama recently asked Congress for $6 billion in emergency funds to fight the virus in West Africa and prevent it from further reaching the U.S. Despite the various Republican opposition to how the president has handled the health crisis, “I think Congress will give him that,” Brinkley predicted.
Then, of course, there’s Obama’s veto and executive action power. The president has already promised to take his own action unless Congress sends him a meaningful bill on immigration before the end of the year. He’s already vowed to veto any GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare as well. The president has only used his veto power twice. In their entire presidencies, Bush had 12 regular and pocket vetoes, Clinton had 37, and Reagan had 78. Obama has room to catch up.
“The president now has some luxury of staying out of the political climate and just do some of the big things he wanted to get accomplished,” said Brinkley, pointing to immigration reform — something Obama waited to take action on until after the midterm elections.
He added, “It’s a good time to sign executive orders because you have projects that have been in the pipeline that just can’t get through Congress.”