Even in Disarray, G.O.P. Has Power to Constrain Obama

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WASHINGTON -- It's been 45 days since voters reaffirmed their faith in President Obama and heartily endorsed his policy agenda for the next four years.

But if anything has been learned since then, it's that the president's power in Washington remains severely constrained by a Republican opposition establishment that is bitter about its losses, unmoved by Mr. Obama's victory and unwilling to compromise on social policy, economics or foreign affairs. House Republicans, in particular, argue that they won elections as well and they see their ability to retain control of the House as granting them the right to stick to their own views even when they clash strongly with the president's.

Friday's pre-Christmas wrangling in the nation's Capitol crystalized the challenges that Mr. Obama faces as he prepares to begin a second term next month.

In House Speaker John A. Boehner, the president has a deal-making partner who is unable to rally House Republicans behind his own plans, much less any deal he might cut with Mr. Obama. In a news conference Friday morning, Mr. Boehner essentially admitted he was running out of ideas to avert big tax increases and spending cuts early next year.

"How we get there," Mr. Boehner told reporters, "God only knows."

Across town just minutes later, officials with the National Rifle Association made clear what House Republicans had been whispering all week: the president's call for gun control in the wake of the Connecticut shooting will run into tremendous opposition.

Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the firearm group, made clear the N.R.A. would not support the president's call for gun control, recommending instead a "school shield" program of armed security guards at the nation's schools as well as a national database that could track the mentally ill.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," Mr. LaPierre said at a news conference that was interrupted by protests and allowed no questions from reporters.

At the same time, the White House said on Friday that it would officially name Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts as Mr. Obama's choice to lead the State Department -- a decision Mr. Obama was forced to make after Republicans effectively blocked his preferred choice, Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations.

Ms. Rice, a longtime confidante of Mr. Obama's, was never formally nominated, but it was no secret inside the White House that the president would have liked her to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton early next year. But even on the heels of his electoral victory, Mr. Obama was unable to overcome Republican opposition -- led by Senator John McCain -- to her nomination.

Polls suggest that Mr. Obama's popularity has surged to its highest point since announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden. In the latest CBS News poll, the president's job approval rating was at 57 percent.

But taken together, the events of the last five weeks suggest that even that improvement in the polls has done little to deliver the president the kind of clear authority to enact his policies that voters seemed to say they wanted during the election.

Even some of the president's closest advisers said they were surprised by the ferocity of the Republican opposition.

"It's kind of a stunning thing to watch the way this has unfolded, at least to date," said David Axelrod, one of Mr. Obama's longtime advisers. "The question is, how do you break free from these strident voices?"

Mr. Axelrod said that the election appeared to have had no effect on the president's most committed adversaries in the Republican House, many of whom remain committed to blocking his every move.

"You have got members of Congress who are simply unwilling to compromise and unwilling to yield to either the will of the American people or the demands of the moment," Mr. Axelrod said.

That may yet change.

There are still 10 days left in which Mr. Obama might reach some sort of arrangement with Congress on averting a fiscal crisis that some predict could plunge the nation back into recession. The White House says it remains hopeful.

In another 31 days, Mr. Obama will deliver his second inaugural address, providing him the opportunity to make his case to the American public on the direction he wants to take them in a second term.

A few weeks after that, he will give his State of the Union address, which he has already promised to use as a call for new gun control laws.

Those opportunities could provide the president with fresh political momentum in the new year.

He will need it. Whatever happens during the remainder of December, Mr. Obama will face economic challenges starting in January, including the likelihood of an extended debate with Republicans over how to overhaul the nation's tax code.

The president's team will need to shepherd Mr. Kerry through the Senate, past what appears to be minimal Republican opposition. But his nominees for other posts -- including, perhaps, Chuck Hagel, the former senator from Nebraska, to be secretary of defense -- may face tougher questions.

The gun control fight he has promised to wage will also compete for time and energy with a battle over comprehensive immigration reform, which he has also said he wants to begin early next year.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Obama expressed hope about finding ways to compromise with his adversaries but also lamented the opposition that he faces in Republicans.

"They keep on finding ways to say no, as opposed to finding ways to say yes," Mr. Obama said on the tax and spending fight. On the subject of guns, he acknowledged the challenge of pursuing gun control in the face of political opposition from those same Reublicans.

"It won't be easy," he said.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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