Running Away From Washington

Both parties will find Obama isn’t really the problem
Illustration by 731; Animation by Steph Davidson

The seventh year of a presidency is almost always difficult and unproductive. Ronald Reagan spent his mired in the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton was undone by the Monica Lewinsky affair and the impeachment that followed. George W. Bush was hamstrung by the unpopularity of the Iraq War and the Democratic Congress it helped usher in. Barack Obama probably won’t fare much better: By delivering Republicans control of Congress, voters have all but ensured that the next two years will be even less productive than the last two.

A handful of issues with support in both parties could conceivably advance, including trade agreements with the European Union and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax, and legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. But with Congress’s approval rating in the teens and partisan acrimony sure to intensify, Washington’s real significance in 2015 will be symbolic, not legislative: It’s a political Chernobyl that will shape both parties’ fortunes.

Next year’s biggest battles may be those fought within the two parties rather than between them. For Republicans, immigration could once again become a major fault line. The rapprochement with Hispanic voters that GOP leaders urged after Mitt Romney’s loss never materialized. Instead, House Republicans killed a bipartisan immigration reform effort last summer. “In 2015, if we don’t show progress as a party on immigration,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told the National Journal recently, “our chances of winning the White House are virtually zero.”

Many Republicans agree. In 2016, 24 Senate Republicans will be up for reelection, many in states that voted for Obama; most will want to steer a more moderate course on immigration and other issues, in hopes of holding on to their seat and their majority. But the Republican Senate caucus also includes presidential contenders, such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, who will be competing for the favor of hard-line conservative activists. They’ll likely pull in the opposite direction.

At the same time, Republican governors eyeing the White House will seek to capitalize on anti-Washington animus by positioning themselves in opposition to congressional Republicans—a strategy that’s already delivered one of their rank to the White House. As Texas governor, Bush said of House Republicans in 1999, “I don’t think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor.” Yet the GOP’s congressional wing dominates the party far more than it did 15 years ago, and it’s not yet clear whether a Republican governor such as Chris Christie will have the gumption to break so publicly with the people who set the conservative agenda.

Democrats will have their own struggles. If Hillary Clinton launches her presidential candidacy, as expected, she will immediately encounter two big obstacles. First will be the challenge of establishing her own independence from Washington, a tough task for someone who’s spent most of the last two decades in the White House, the Senate, and the Department of State.

Tougher still will be the task of distancing herself from a weak president. Democrats, unlike their counterparts, largely agree on their agenda, which leaves Clinton without much space to maneuver. In July, Clinton discovered firsthand the danger of attempting to create space between herself and Obama. “Great nations need organizing principles,” she said, in comments widely interpreted as critical of Obama’s foreign policy, “and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” The blowback forced an awkward public detente that highlighted her dilemma.

In politics, some unforeseen factor usually upends everyone’s expectations and reshapes the environment. Next year it could be a war, a natural disaster, or perhaps a fight over a Supreme Court nominee. That’s how the world works. It’s even possible that Obama could prove to be the exception among recent presidents and somehow find a way to defy the Seventh-Year Curse. Just don’t bet on it. 

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