As the curtain rises on Barack Obama's second term, where's the love from Republicans? After all, when you think about some of things he did over the past four years, he's one of them.
Like Richard Nixon, Obama raised taxes on the rich and cut them for everyone else. Like Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency, Obama fought for cleaner air and water. Like Ronald Reagan, Obama backed tough measures to curb gun violence. Like Reagan, he dreamed of a cap and trade plan to help the environment. (Reagan's dream came true with a global treaty to save the ozone layer in 1987.) Obama copied Mitt Romney's health-care plan and George W. Bush's immigration plan. Like Bush, he ordered a troop surge to gain strategic advantage in an unpopular war — before cutting a deal to end it. And like Reagan and Bush (and Dick Cheney, who said deficits don't matter), under Obama, the debt exploded.
Yet despite all these similarities to their own polices over the years, some Republicans say, "What a commie! Fascist! Socialist! Tyrant!"
The right's distaste for Obama's first-term policies extends overseas as well. He has been accused of weakness on North Korea and Iran, two charter members of George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil." Bush admitted both Pyongyang and Tehran to this exclusive club in his 2002 State of the Union (Iraq was the third member of this troika), and issued this explicit warning:
The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.
But Bush did permit it. In October 2006, North Korea successfully tested a nuclear weapon. Bush also did little to stop Iran from marching ahead with its own nuclear program. Now, Bush did stop someone: Israel. In 2008, he rejected a request from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for bunker-buster bombs needed to hit Iranian nuclear targets buried deep underground. Bush also rejected an Israeli request to fly over U.S.-controlled Iraqi airspace on its proposed raid. Yet somehow, it's Obama who inherited both of these nuclear messes, who is called weak and disrespectful of our key allies.
Of course, I'm half-joking about Obama being a Republican. But the joke's on the GOP. Republicans have moved so far to the right in recent years that they can't recognize how centrist most of the president's policies — taken from past Republican playbooks — really are. On big issues like immigration, climate change, and reducing gun violence, and on issues that effect important voting blocs, like Latinos, students, and women, Republicans today are simply out of touch. This dynamic looms large over the second term, and the president will take advantage wherever he can.
And there's this: Barack Obama is not the same president he was four years ago. It has been said that no job can truly prepare one for the presidency, and given Obama's thin résumé and inclination for hubris (a trait all presidents have), it was inevitable that there would be growing pains. He made mistakes. He boasted about how he would stop the oceans from rising and cut the deficit in half. His advisors said unemployment wouldn't go beyond 8 percent. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
But like all presidents, Obama has learned on the job. He has acquired a better sense of power and how it is applied in pursuit of a goal. He has a more realistic understanding of the entrenched forces that are working against him. This understanding, and the 332 electoral votes he won on November 6, have given him a backbone. He always had one, but it wasn't evident because he spent much of the past four years bending over backwards to accommodate Republicans (with the major exception of health-care, which was shoved down the GOP's throat). Obama has wised up. And he's disdainful of the Republicans who spent the last four years blocking him at every turn.
What does all this mean for the president's agenda? Take one of his big second term goals: Immigration reform. The president knows — as do Republicans — that he won the Latino vote by 44 percentage points. That's eight percentage points more than in 2008. Obtuse, arrogant policies doomed Republicans from the beginning, and given the fact that Latinos are not only the fastest-growing voter bloc in the country but also the youngest, Republican policies will have to change if the GOP hopes to reverse this trend in 2014, 2016, and beyond. Obama has little reason to play nice with the GOP on immigration reform.
Republicans are already changing. During the year-end tax fight, Obama's divide-and-conquer strategy peeled off 85 Republican votes in the House, shattering what had been a rock-solid GOP caucus. 85 votes. Among those voting the president's way: Former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Then last week, Republicans caved on the debt ceiling, stepping back from threats to shut down the government. Look for Obama to keep up the pressure on the sequester, the big spending cuts that were kicked down the road until March, and on other fiscal matters as well.
The president is holding the best cards he has held in four years. But political winds are fickle. Obama and the Democrats won in 2008, received a "shellacking" (his word) in 2010, and then rebounded last November. He begins his new term with a modest 52 percent approval rating, below Bill Clinton's 60 percent in 1997 and Ronald Reagan's 62 percent in 1985. In fact, Obama is right about where George W. Bush was when his second term began in 2005. The numbers are worse on the one issue that his administration will ultimately be judged on: the economy. The New York Times reported last week that just 46 percent of Americans approve of the president's ability to handle the economy; 49 percent don't.
Obama also knows that presidents tend to lose ground in midterms, and that after 2014, he will be a lame duck. He has a narrow window in which to act. If the president wants to make a mark with his second-term agenda, he has months, not years, to do so.