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Obama’s Recast Agenda Faces Doubters

President Barack Obama’s problem hasn’t been that he doesn’t have a second-term agenda, as challenger Mitt Romney has claimed. The difficulty for Obama has been in explaining how he could be more successful in a second term after two years of gridlock. 

And until recently, the president hadn’t boiled down his sprawling array of policy proposals to a few top priorities.

Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) have been hammering Obama for weeks now on the lack of a clear second-term agenda, something that the Obama camp has repeatedly dismissed.

And the Obama campaign is certainly correct that the president has numerous plans and proposals. But most of them have gone straight into Congress’ circular file in the past two years: his budgets, his deficit reduction plan, his American Jobs Act, his jobs “to-do” list, the DREAM Act proposal to give illegal immigrant children a pathway to citizenship, the Buffett Rule plan to require millionaires to pay a minimum tax rate, and on and on.

This week, the Obama team repackaged many of those plans into a boiled-down “Plan for Jobs” brochure outlining his second-term agenda. And separately Obama outlined his agenda in an interview that was originally off the record with the Des Moines Register, where he gave perhaps his frankest answers to date about what he thinks he can get done and why. 

He predicted Congress would finally agree to a “grand bargain” on the budget including new tax revenue on the wealthy and achieve a breakthrough on immigration reform next year if he’s re-elected — but his best-laid plans would require a new level of cooperation not present in the current Congress. With the balance of power likely to remain the same — with Republicans in control of the House and Democrats steering the Senate — something will have to give.

Obama acknowledged the grand bargain wouldn’t be easy. 

“It will probably be messy,” he told the Register. “It won’t be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time.” 

On immigration, Obama predicted the logjam would finally break because it’s in the Republican Party’s long-term interests to cut a deal.

“I will just be very blunt,” Obama said. “Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-
growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community. … So I am fairly confident that they’re going to have a deep interest in getting that done.”

Obama said that in addition to implementing the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and the health care law, he would work with Republicans on reforming the corporate tax code, reform regulations and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. 

Obama also made pitches on other pieces of his campaign agenda, including boosting science and technology education, community colleges and renewable energy. But many of those ideas remain stalled in Congress. 

Romney has been less than impressed with Obama’s recent moves. “The president’s been unable to find an agenda and to communicate an agenda and to defend an agenda,” the GOP nominee said in Reno on Wednesday.

And on immigration, Obama has faced criticism from Romney and some in the Hispanic community for not being able to enact legislation even when he had large Democratic majorities during the first two years of his term.

During his Register interview, Obama explained that even when he had large majorities, Republicans worked to thwart him from day one. He noted that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed to make him a one-term president and that House Republicans announced their opposition to the 2009 stimulus bill just hours before the president was scheduled to meet with them on the topic. The president also dismissed the notion that he caused more partisan warfare by pursuing health care reform.

“The suggestion somehow that if we hadn’t pursued Obamacare, somehow we would have gotten additional stimulus out of the Republicans … that’s just not borne out by any of the evidence,” Obama said.

But nowhere has Obama fully explained how he would change the dynamic in a second term.

The first test for Obama’s post-election agenda might come even before any deal on the much-discussed fiscal cliff. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has already said he plans to bring a bill to the floor during the lame-duck session that would let underwater homeowners refinance their mortgages. Vice President Joseph Biden has touted such a plan at multiple stops on the campaign trail in Ohio this week.

“It just says for all those big banks that have more than $50 billion we helped bail out, they put a few cents on $100, and they put a reinsurance fund out there. Not a penny for the taxpayer. And everybody could refinance. Literally, they could refinance, saving over $3,000 a year,” Biden said. 

That item is one piece of Obama’s to-do list that has yet to get a vote this year — other pieces were filibustered by the GOP, including a package of business tax cuts.

The Obama campaign’s second-term blueprint also references a plan to establish manufacturing innovation institutes to promote high-tech industry. A pilot center opened in August in Youngstown, Ohio, through a public-private partnership.

The broader plan, included in the president’s fiscal 2013 budget, seeks $1 billion to establish as many as 15 more of these centers.

It’s part of a larger Obama plan to boost manufacturing, one of the items Obama has touted and made part of his final television ad pitch on his agenda. 

The Romney campaign and Capitol Hill Republicans, meanwhile, have dismissed Obama’s effort at repackaging his agenda as well as his dealmaking chops.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking on Don Imus’ show Wednesday, said Obama repeatedly failed to reach out to Republicans in his first term.

“When’s the last time he asked [Speaker John] Boehner [R-Ohio] and Mitch [McConnell] to come down to the White House and maybe have a drink? Maybe have dinner?” McCain asked. Obama’s aloof stance has been a frequent complaint among Hill Republicans since the collapse of the grand bargain talks in the summer of 2011.

One GOP aide predicted Obama’s second-term success would depend on how much he reached out to the GOP immediately after the election.

“The more toxic he makes the lame-duck, the more he jeopardizes a second-term agenda,” the aide said.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.


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