WASHINGTON (AP) — For President Barack Obama, an encouraging vote on his trade agenda and a harrowing tragedy in South Carolina showcased the promise and peril of his presidential end game.
Hand-wringing over a stinging setback for Obama’s trade package in Congress last week gave way to sighs of relief at the White House on Thursday when the House took the first steps to put the legislation back on track.
And the president showed he still can command the national pulpit when he spoke compellingly about the shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine people dead.
Yet in his statement on the church shooting, Obama also offered a glum acknowledgment that there was no way he could prod Congress to take action on gun violence, an issue of enormous importance to him.
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“The politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now,” he said flatly.
It turns out the politics of Washington limit the president’s options on all sorts of issues, not just guns, at this stage in his presidency.
But on the big issues already in play — trade and an Iran nuclear deal, in particular — Obama still is very much in the game.
While the biggest accomplishments of Obama’s presidency came early on, “it would be incorrect at this point to conclude that every important thing was done in the first months of his administration,” said Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. “The fortunes of the president can turn very quickly, and what appeared hopeless last week would appear a possibility now.”
The trade deal that was being written off as near dead last week after congressional Democrats abandoned the president in droves is headed for a showdown vote in the Senate after the White House worked closely with House Republicans to revive it.
And the president still is in pursuit of a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program that, after nearly a decade of international efforts, would be a key achievement of Obama’s second term if negotiators can overcome lingering differences.
Obamacare is a wildcard, as well. The president could win outright in a legacy-clinching decision by the Supreme Court or be dealt a stinging loss. But even if the court votes to remove a vital piece of the 2010 health care law, Obama still could have room to maneuver. Republicans are scrambling to come up with an alternative if millions of Americans suddenly lose their government-backed health insurance. The burden may fall on Republican governors to find a way out of the mess.
In coming months, additional areas may surface where Obama can wield influence by finding common ground with congressional Republicans.
“At this point, the president’s greatest source of influence comes in those areas where Republicans, for reasons of their own, want to get something done,” says the Brookings Institution’s Bill Galston, mentioning corporate tax reform as one possibility. “They can’t do that without dealing with him to some extent.”
On trade, a 218-208 House vote on Thursday breathed life into Obama’s trade agenda after weeks of negotiation and uncertainty.
Might that suggest some lessons learned that could foreshadow more deal-making between the president and the GOP-controlled Congress?
House Speaker John Boehner isn’t so sure.
“I’d describe most of what’s gone on in the last three weeks as close to bizarre,” the Ohio Republican said. “I don’t think I’ve learned anything from it.”
Asked about Obama’s relationship with legislators in his own party after the trade defections, White House spokesman Eric Shultz was quick to point out that the president would spend a good part of his time over the next two days raising money on their behalf in California.
“You’re going to see, over the next 48 hours, data that will answer that question,” Schultz promised.
Obama, at an evening fundraiser in Santa Monica, acknowledged that there was still “so much that’s left undone” on his wish-list and that some of his supporters had become disillusioned.
“Sometimes I feel like people forgot the essence of my pledge when I ran for president,” he said, reminding the audience that he’d said all along that everyone has to work hard for change — not just the president.
“The good news is we can do it,” Obama assured. But he also talked about handing off the baton to another generation, and of progress measured in decades, not months.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.
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