President Obama is heading into the United Nations General Assembly meetings next week with some bright prospects on the horizon. A chemical weapons deal with Russia and Syria is being implemented, Iran and the U.S. are extending the verbal equivalent of olive branches, and Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are quietly back to the bargaining table.
Obama's domestic agenda, on the other hand, is completely in crisis. The U.S. is on the verge of a government shutdown if Democrats and Republicans can’t come up with a deal, the Tea Party is engaged in a quixotic quest to destroy Obamacare, and gun control and immigration reform seem increasingly unlikely to become law.
All this after a bloody week of gun violence in which gunman Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, and an additional 13 people were injured, including a 3-year-old boy, following a gang-related shooting at a basketball court in Obama's adopted hometown of Chicago.
Not even a year into Obama’s second term, and the president is getting hammered on all of these domestic problems from critics on both the left and right. And with so many issues piling up, so many expectations to live up to, and so many constituencies to please all at once, Obama faces the very real risk of accomplishing nothing, and having an empty second term.
“The pressure is definitely mounting,” said Jamie Chandler a political science professor at Hunter College.
Like many of his predecessors, President Obama may reserve efforts where he can make the most impact with foreign policy rather than expel political capital on domestic issues tied up in a petulant Congress. With the crisis in Syria, Obama got lucky and was able to avoid making a politically unpopular decision to strike the Middle Eastern country over its use of chemical weapons. The deal was only made possible after Russia, America’s longstanding frenemy, stepped forward and agreed to hammer out an agreement with U.S. officials to make Syria disarm.
Obama had pushed himself into a corner over a year ago after saying President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the U.S. He then argued strikes were necessary but later hedged and asked Congress for the authorization, which seemed to be very unlikely. The president's muddled message fueled a perception that he was somewhat confused and feckless on Syria -- a striking turnaround for a man who was seen as a decisive leader on foreign affairs in his first term.
But it's still unclear if Syria will actually comply, and what exactly will happen if they don’t. Some Republican hawks like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham don’t like the deal at all, insisting it has no teeth unless the United Nations Security Council passes a resolution leaving military force on the table. They say it sends a terrible signal to Iran as it pushes for nuclear weapons.
Which brings us to Iran. Newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani is vowing his administration won’t develop nuclear weapons. And President Obama and Rouhani have been in communication. All eyes will be on Rouhani and Obama next week to see if the two leaders will meet and what they might say – and if Obama in his second term can make the two countries’ icy cold relationship thaw.
But before Obama heads to New York for the United Nations on Monday and Tuesday, the president must first face the difficulties of his domestic agenda in curbing gun violence. He'll visit with families of victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting and attend a memorial service on Sunday, in what has become an all-too familiar role of consoler-in-chief.
Domestic distractions are plenty. Earlier this week, Obama was all set to give remarks on the economy -- when the debate over gun control was suddenly renewed following the mass shooting at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard. The tragedy prompted Obama to call on Congress once again to revisit gun control. It's likely going to be a Sisyphean task. His push for expanded background checks following the Newtown massacre failed after the Senate could not get the 60 votes it needed to overcome the threat of a filibuster. It's unlikely this time will be any different.
And finally, there’s the huge issue of the debt ceiling and some Republicans saying they’ll only keep the government funded beyond September if Obama’s healthcare law is defunded. That, of course, could risk a government shutdown if the two sides cannot come to agreement.
The stakes are big for Obama. There’s his legacy, for one. But also, if the president fails to make good on at least some of these issues, his second term agenda on other matters he cares deeply about -- think climate change, the economy, and immigration -- could also be in peril, as they get pushed to the sidelines. If Obama fails to rack up some wins, allies and opponents alike may view him as a lame duck -- regardless of whether that assessment is fair -- meaning Obama could have trouble using the bully pulpit to pressure lawmakers.
And of course, Republicans aren't exactly making things easier for the president. Seeing him painted into a politically problematic corner, they're almost gleefully trying to deny him any victories.
Chandler said in some ways the sky-high pile of problems Obama is encountering is a product of the president not prioritizing well –like wading into the risky gun control debate again, or fumbling his red-line rhetoric on Syria. “He comes out with guns blazing then then significantly moderates his original stance as you get closer to deadline.”
He added that Obama has a rapidly dwindling time frame to accomplish what he campaigned for. There’s only four months until Congress recesses for the holidays. And in 2014, it will be difficult to pass meaningful legislation with the midterm elections looming. On the flip side, if he doesn’t accomplish much between now and the midterms, it could hurt the Democrats.
Conservative strategist Keith Appell said having a full plate is just part of being president and his legacy is at risk because his number one priority of improving the economy has not been significantly addressed.
Fixing the economy, he said, could arguable be pegged to how much political capital he has on the issues Obama is currently facing (Syria, Iran, debt ceiling, gun control). “But certainly, if you’re talking about legacy, unless there is an overwhelming foreign policy situation like the Cold War, then it’s all about the economy.”
But Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University said "Every time Obama tries to refocus on the economy, there’s these enormous crises that break out. You can just imagine how frustrating that can be and how it’s been difficult for him to prioritize."
“It’s not only the amount he has on his plate. It’s that he doesn’t’ have the ability to get anything done without Congress,” she added.
The worst case scenario? It's bad.
“There’s the potential of it being a very difficult few years and him being a lame duck president,” said Zaino.