The Conversation this week features government professors Joseph Bafumi, whose interests include electoral behavior and public opinion, and Brendan Nyhan, who researches political misconceptions and scandal.
Dartbeat: Based on the speech, what do you think the most contentious policies will be in President Barack Obama’s second term?
Joseph Bafumi: New taxes, entitlement reform, additional spending projects in education and infrastructure and possibly some of the social issues.
Brendan Nyhan: Immigration and guns are the most controversial social policy issues, aside from budget and taxes.
JB: The Republicans are probably looking at the last election and thinking they’ve got to do something about immigration — move a little bit to the left on that — and on guns. There may be Republicans who are waiting a little bit before taking really hard stances against traditional gun control. They may be waiting for memories of [the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting] to subside, for example. The public opinion we’ve seen is so in favor of gun control, they’re probably looking to stall the issue, so it’s hard to know how we’ll deal with that one. But I think we might actually get immigration reform because in the last election House Republicans realized they’ve got to do something to woo Latino voters.
Dartbeat: How effective do you think this year’s State of the Union will be?
BN: It depends how you define ‘effective.’ The ultimate constituency for these things, as far as policy objectives, is Congress. There certainly are Republicans who were concerned with the immigration issue, but we’re already starting to see these signs of polarization over the issue since the speech. It’s important to remember there are lots of issues where it seemed like something was about to happen, and then Congress slow-rolled it until it died.
Dartbeat: But you said that we would likely see something about immigration now.
JB: My guess is I think it’s fair to say Latino voters were key to Obama’s victory — and of course there’s some disagreement about that — but they voted for him in numbers greater than they voted for him in 2008. With Republicans running away from immigration issues, Latino voters were turned off. And that may have been why they didn’t do as well in 2012 as they would have liked to, at least at the presidential level. So I think if they could hammer out some sort of compromise, I could imagine some kind of comprehensive immigration reform passing, whereas I’m not sure there’ll be comprehensive gun control reform.
Dartbeat: Why are you doubtful about gun control reform?
JB: There’s still a lot of Republicans who don’t want it — they’re just not very vocal right now, because public opinion is trending in the direction of gun control. So I think that’s going to be a harder issue. Gun control hurts Democrats a lot, and that’s one of the reasons they’ve been very careful with the issue up until very recent times. A lot of Democrats who come from red states are concerned that in 2014 if they are too aggressive on gun control, they’re going to lose their seats — their Senate seats particularly — so I think the politics of gun control are more difficult than the politics of immigration reform.
Dartbeat: When I was watching the speech I noticed that the ending of the speech was the most rhetorically powerful. A lot of it seemed — in the hour lead-up until he got to that point — pretty straightforward for a State of the Union but then toward the end the part about gun control became pretty powerful.
JB: I thought so too. Very rhetorically powerful, and probably the strongest effort Obama made to swing public opinion in his favor and against House Republicans. He presents himself as a guy just asking them to take a vote, making Republicans look like people who won’t even bring legislation to the floor. There hasn’t been enough time while the issue is in the forefront of public discourse to know that Republicans are stalling, but the rhetoric and the political strategy I think was very powerful.
Dartbeat: Does picking a single policy like gun control that already has this momentum of public opinion behind it increase the president’s public opinion ratings as a whole?
JB: I think he would hope that it would, I don’t know if it did.
BN: No. It doesn’t. And even the boost that gun control legislation has had in the polls is likely to be temporary. There was a blip after [the Columbine High School shooting] as well but it dissipated. At the time there was an effort to pass gun control, and it failed. So there’s a pretty short window of attention and public support. The other bottom line is we’re headed into a midterm election with a constituency that’s going to be less supportive of immigration than the general electorate that we just saw. The other thing is that in the House, [Speaker of the House] John Boehner [R-Ohio] had to allow a fiscal cliff deal to go through that they didn’t like. They had to let a deal pass that a majority of Republicans in the House voted against. They don’t want to do that again. Even if an immigration proposal or a gun control proposal exists that could get a majority of votes in the house, the House majority has to decide to allow it to go to the floor. Most of the time, the House majority won’t let things go to the floor that their focus opposes. It will be interesting if they let one of these things get to the floor — it’s going to split their caucus in two.
Dartbeat: Do you think anything Obama said about the economy will have significance in the next year?
JB: I’m not sure. I think [Americans are] becoming increasingly disenchanted with these created fiscal crises that come about — what is this, the fifth or sixth one? It looks to me that Republicans have lost the fiscal wars up until now, so that works in Obama’s favor, but there’s also this sentiment out there that tires of all the politicians because they just can’t come up with a compromise deal.
BN: To the extent that no one seems to be feeling enough pressure to do a deal on the budget cuts, the sequester—to that extent the speech failed. The thought that the sequester could go into effect was politically unthinkable as of a few months ago, but now a lot of people say that it will.
Dartbeat: Do you think it will happen?
BN: It seems that way, but the situation is that everyone will extract the best bargain if they say they’ll let it happen.
JB: Yeah. In that game, Obama’s fared a little better than Republicans, and he’s still talking the talk, but we’ll only know for sure at the time. All of us suffer from the two sides not being able to come up with some sort of compromise deal. I’m not talking about kicking the can down the road, I’m talking about something that’s long-term and comprehensive. And we haven’t gotten anything like that, though we’ve come close if you believe what some of us have read or heard about the negotiations between Boehner and Obama. Things fall apart and now it looks like there’s even more entrenchment. It looks like Obama’s moving more in a leftward direction, and Boehner’s catering to the more conservative elements of the House Republican caucus. It looks like the gap has widened since Obama has increased the taxes on the rich.
Dartbeat: Does that mean that none of these initiatives from the speech will likely come to a vote?
JB: It’s really hard to say. I think that if the stock market doesn’t crash, if nothing really forces their hand, they’re just going to keep playing the game of chicken, until they’re forced to do something because something severe happens.
BN: It’s hard to say what gets brought to a vote. Being the opposing party under divided government is tricky. You’re caught between the pressure to make some deals, keep the lights on in government and maybe take issues off the table that you’re uncomfortable with. At the same time, you don’t want to keep giving the president political victories. They can bottle up most of Obama’s second term agenda. Most presidents have a tough time with their second term agenda. We tend to see the most legislative action when a new party takes control of the presidency.
Dartbeat: So what should we be looking for as we follow presidential and congressional politics in the next year?
JB: Look for some areas where they will find compromise agreement, like immigration reform, some areas where they will stall like fiscal policy issues or gun control, look for continued posturing and it won’t be long before they’re both thinking, ‘We have an election coming up soon, so let’s just see what happens then.’