Reaching For History, Obama Could Make Same Mistakes As George W. Bush

As the president looks to tackle legacy-defining issues like gun control and immigration, bipartisan murmurs on the Hill grow louder. “They’re not talking to anybody.”

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File / AP

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s second term is starting off looking a lot like that of the man he replaced and reviled — President George W. Bush.

Both men hurdled into their second terms claiming a mandate after winning reelection and sought to undertake legacy-cementing legislative agendas. But eight years after his predecessor, Obama appears poised to make some of the same mistakes, Democrats and Republicans say, trying to bypass Congress as he reaches for the history books.

While Obama’s relationship with the last Congress was defined by dealing with manufactured crises — government shutdown threats, fiscal cliffs — he is now suddenly trying to shape a broader legacy by taking on marquee issues like climate change, gun control, and immigration reform. Each goal would be ambitious in its own right, but tackled together, they could produce a legislative nightmare.

“It’s a lot of stuff,” conceded White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Friday, adding, “but it’s important.”

Indeed, outside forces have conspired in recent months to place three of the most polarizing political issues front and center for the president. Since Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast, Obama has made repeated rhetorical nods — including prominent placement in his second inaugural address — toward addressing climate change; he’s making a push to act on gun control while the nation’s memories of the Sandy Hook shooting are still fresh; and with many Republicans suddenly eager to find a solution to the immigration issue, Obama will deliver a speech in Las Vegas Tuesday with the intention of jump-starting reform efforts.

To date, the White House has pushed ahead on all three fronts simultaneously, something likely to change by the State of the Union on Feb. 12. Democrats familiar with the administration’s thinking believe immigration will move to the forefront, with the others dependent on a successful outcome.

“Obama needs to get something passed without poisoning the well, and immigration is where he has to start before anything else will get done,” said one Democratic operative close to the White House.

One former top Obama campaign aide compared Obama’s second term legislative push to Bush’s. “In your second term, your political capital runs out fast — so you throw a lot of legislation at Congress and see what sticks.”

In Bush’s case, after the 2004 election, that meant bluntly informing the nation that he had political “capital” and that he was “going to spend it.” And that he did, sinking virtually all of it into attempts at reforming Social Security, replacing the popular government-run pension program with a hybrid that relied heavily on a privatized system.

Bush and his senior advisers repeatedly spoke about their Social Security plans in public in the months following the election, forcing Republican leaders in Congress to reluctantly join their president in his third-rail politicking. Hoping to build popular support for the efforts, Bush embarked on a Social Security road show, hosting town halls and forums in various states.

But the White House made virtually no attempt to lobby Capitol Hill, leaving Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Denny Hastert to try to build a coalition themselves around the highly controversial and unpopular privatization push.

The results were predictable: Democrats turned the issue into a bludgeon against Bush and Republicans, not only killing the Social Security reform push that year, but setting GOP effort back years.

A senior Senate Democratic aide said that the Obama administration’s approach to gun control is similar to how Bush approached his Social Security reform plans.

“It’s clear the optics are the same,” the aide said of the two presidents’ work on the Hill.

Vice President Joe Biden has held multiple public events to raise awareness on gun violence, and officials say Obama will in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the White House has rolled out an ambitious set of gun control proposals, most of which have little chance of passage in either chamber of Congress.

On Capitol Hill, the perception among many is that Obama has essentially written them off when it comes to gun control.

“No, they’re not talking to anybody,” a second Democratic aide said, adding, “Maybe, maybe they can get something on background checks” through the House and Senate.

But some Democrats point out that, unlike Bush’s Social Security agenda, the point of Obama publicly pushing the gun issue is less about actual legislative victories and more about the politics of 2014, when the president hopes to retake control of the House for his last two years. The White House is making a bet that the politics of gun control have changed so dramatically that the party that fights gun control will lose in the midterms.

The surface similarities on immigration are equally obvious. Obama has made clear he wants comprehensive reforms, and Tuesday will mark the beginning of a serious public push by the White House. And, as in 2005, the White House has been virtually absent on Capitol Hill, resisting calls for specific proposals.

“The president will in his remarks sort of make clear his intention to redouble our efforts to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality,” Carney said Friday, indicating that Obama is supportive of congressional work on comprehensive reform but isn’t engaged in the process.

“But this is not at the policy level, at the substance level different from what he’s been pushing and what his positions have been for quite some time,” he added, previewing the speech.

Unlike Bush’s Social Security push, the lack of involvement by Obama on immigration may be a good thing.

“Anything he puts his name on, Republicans automatically run away from,” the senior Democratic aide said. And with a bipartisan group of senators expected to produce a set of outlines for comprehensive immigration reform in the next 10 days or so — including a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants — keeping his fingerprints off a deal may be critical.

If the group, which includes Republicans like Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Jeff Flake, can come to a deal and produce legislation, the thinking goes, the bill could pass with upwards of 70 votes. And that, in turn, could help force Speaker John Boehner to push the bill through the House with Democratic votes.

With Tuesday’s speech expected to stay vague, Democrats said they hope it will at least provide a needed public boost to the efforts to reform immigration laws while avoiding having it tied to Obama too closely. One Democrat, however, bluntly acknowledged that “you never know with him,” pointing to Obama’s tone-deaf New Year’s Eve fiscal cliff speech that nearly torpedoed a last-minute deal.

Republicans largely agree there are parallels, though they argue there is an added layer to it: In both 2005 and 2013, the presidents were ignoring “the elephant in the room.”

“Bush totally ignored the wars to do Social Security, which was his down fall,” said a GOP leadership aide. “And Obama is doing the same with spending and the debt.”

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