Analysis: Even in disarray, Republicans have power to constrain Obama

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WASHINGTON -- It's been 45 days since voters reaffirmed their faith in President Barack Obama and 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 see their ability to retain House control 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 capital crystallized the challenges that Mr. Obama faces as he prepares to begin a second term next month.

In Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, 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 that he was running out of ideas to avert big tax increases and spending cuts early next year. "How we get there," he told reporters, "God only knows."

Across town just minutes later, National Rifle Association officials 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, executive vice president of the firearm group, made clear that the NRA would not support the president's call for gun control, recommending instead a "school shield" program of armed security guards at U.S. schools as well as a national database that could track the mentally ill.

At the same time, the White House said Friday that it would officially name Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry 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 Rice, 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 GOP opposition -- led by Arizona Sen. John McCain -- to her nomination.

Polls suggest that Mr. Obama's popularity has surged to its highest point since announcing the killing of al-Qaida chief 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 past 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 longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod. "The question is, how do you break free from these strident voices?"

Mr. Axelrod said the election appeared to have had no effect on the president's most ardent 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," he said.

That may yet change. There are still 10 days left in which Mr. Obama might reach some sort of arrangement with Congress to avert 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 GOP opposition. But his nominees for other posts -- including, perhaps, former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary -- may face tougher questions.

The gun control fight he has pledged 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 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 of the tax-and-spending fight.

On the guns topic, he acknowledged the challenge of pursuing gun control in the face of opposition from those same Republicans. "It won't be easy," he said.

nation


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