For Obama and Capitol Hill, the Future Starts Today

Stuart Rothenberg July 9, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

The next six months will be a crucial time for the White House and for both political parties.

While the nation’s economic problems have not been resolved, there is now a general sense among many, certainly in the public at large, that things have stabilized.

No, we aren’t entering a period of economic boom, but the worst, most people believe, is behind us, and the nation’s political leaders can now turn their attention toward health care, climate change, energy and other policy areas. There has been a dramatic improvement in the “right direction/wrong track” poll question, and more and more Americans say they think the economy is improving.

Though the optimism is tempered, it creates certain expectations. The question is whether events over the next six months will prove that optimism well-founded, and whether Democrats will be as strong and well-positioned at the end of the year as they seem to be at the year’s midpoint.

Growing unemployment, or any new signs of economic weakness, certainly could damage the president and his party.

For all of the frenzy of activity in the nation’s capital over the past six months, most of it has been of the emergency variety. Prevent a financial collapse of U.S. banks. Keep the doors open at General Motors. Take steps to prevent a full-fledged economic meltdown.

The result is that most of the big-ticket policy items are still far from being enacted.

While the House of Representatives passed a climate bill immediately before Members left for the July Fourth holiday break, the narrow 219-212 majority ought to be unsettling to supporters of the measure. Senate leaders have already indicated that the House bill is only a starting point for Senate efforts, an ominous sign given the maneuvering and arm-twisting needed to pass the bill in the House.

If the outlook for climate legislation is uncertain, the prospect of Congress producing a broadly acceptable health care reform bill that will fundamentally alter the nation’s health care system is even cloudier.

That’s not to say Congress won’t pass something in both areas, only that it’s still quite possible the president and Democratic Congressional leaders may ultimately have to accept half a loaf if they want something at all.

Months of bickering within a divided Democratic majority wouldn’t be good for the president’s party, of course.

November will also bring two gubernatorial elections, in Virginia and in New Jersey, as well as legislative elections.

While Republicans have been battered over the past six months — with personal scandals, failures and controversies dogging some of the GOP’s most high-profile figures and party infighting doing nothing to convince voters that Republicans have a plan for themselves, let alone for the country — the two gubernatorial contests have a chance to inject a dose of optimism into the GOP.

While Republican victories in one or both of those states won’t turn around the party’s prospects completely, a couple of wins could change a narrative that has benefited Democrats for more than the past three years. Two Democratic victories, on the other hand, would reinforce the perception that voters have no interest in turning to Republicans, further strengthening the president’s hand.

Then there is foreign policy, an area where the Obama administration has yet to record any great accomplishments. Unlike the domestic agenda, over which the president and Congressional leaders have considerable control, foreign policy is more reactive.

With problems still brewing in North Korea, Iran and the Middle East in general, the administration could be faced with critical decisions at any moment. How it handles those decisions surely will affect the president’s and his party’s reputations.

And what can Republicans do to change their standing with the public? Aside from winning November’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey, not much. If they oppose the president at every turn, they look like the “party of no,” as Democrats have branded them. And if they sign onto legislative measures, they are, to some extent, co-opted, limiting future options.

The GOP’s near-term fate rests more with Democrats — with how the president performs and how the Democratic majority in Congress is viewed — than with anything that the Republican Party can do.

So far, the Obama administration has been remarkably error-free, especially when compared to the first few months of Bill Clinton’s first term. But as the lifting gets heavier, as the costs of new programs grow and as tough decisions are wrestled with by the Democratic Congressional leaders, criticism of the president and his party could grow.

On the other hand, if Democrats can navigate the dangerous waters successfully, producing both climate and health care legislation that the public likes, overseeing a brightening economy and hanging on to the two governorships in November, Republicans may find themselves roaming the wilderness well into Barack Obama’s second term.