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Doyle McManus: Can Obama turn his sixth year into success?

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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The sixth year of a two-term presidency is rarely kind.

The public’s initial romance with the president has faded. The brief momentum he thought he earned by winning re-election has faded, too. The White House doesn’t set the agenda anymore; events are in charge now.

For many presidents – Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton – this was the point when the scandals took over. President Obama has run into his share of controversies, but none that quite reached scandalhood. But the calamitous launch of Obama’s health care plan has had the same confidence-sapping effect.

Also, the midterm congressional election has almost always taken seats from the second-term president’s party, making his job even harder.

Still, there are reasons to believe Obama’s Year 6 won’t be the disaster his critics predict.

First, the economy is finally recovering in earnest from the Great Recession. A spate of forecasts have predicted growth around a healthy 3 percent this year, with unemployment slowly declining to 6.5 percent. That could deprive Republicans of one of their main arguments for turning Democrats out of office.

Another potential plus for Obama is that he has finally settled on a central theme that appeals to independent voters as well as Democrats: economic fairness. In that vein, Obama plans to wage a major battle to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The minimum wage is a classic wedge issue, with Democrats and independents supporting Obama’s position but GOP voters divided.

Obama’s other big domestic priority, immigration reform, works that way, too. If he can steer bipartisan legislation through Congress, he’ll take credit. If Republicans block a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, he’ll make sure they get the blame – especially among Latino voters.

The administration even has reason to hope that opinion on Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, will shift as millions of once-uninsured people begin to use their new insurance (or their newly won Medicaid).

Foreign policy could also provide a boost thanks to an event that has long been on Obama’s calendar: the withdrawal of most of the remaining 47,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Expect a long series of homecoming ceremonies with flags, marching bands, tearful family reunions – and speeches by Obama reminding voters that he’s fulfilled his 2008 promise to end two wars.

The administration is also trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran (difficult), peace between Israel and the Palestinians (even more difficult), and an end to the civil war in Syria (next to impossible). A win on any would be an unexpected success.

Finally, 2014 is an election year, and Obama has always been better at campaigning than governing.

If tea party Republicans rise to Obama’s bait as they have in the past, the GOP could suffer in the eyes of many voters.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that things will play out the way Obama would like. Another standoff over the debt ceiling this spring could damage both parties. Obamacare could run into new problems. Foreign policy could turn into a list of failures.

But the president has one bittersweet asset on his side: Unlike during his heady early years in office, expectations for 2014 are low. If he can survive Year 6 with a healthy economy, health care intact, the Senate in Democratic hands and no new disasters, that will look like success and enable him to live and fight another day.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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