Hubris. Every second-term president views reelection as a mandate for his policies and priorities, a vindication of the first term, and a rebuke to the president’s critics. Many overreach, as Franklin Roosevelt did with his plan to “pack” the Supreme Court, and Bush did with his attempt to privatize Social Security.
What about Obama? As the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win election and reelection with at least 51 percent of the popular vote, he had reason to feel vindicated. No question, he started his second term with high expectations that the unrelenting and blanket opposition to every one of his initiatives by Republicans in Congress would abate enough, at least in the Senate, to give him chances to enact major new policy initiatives on guns, immigration, energy, and infrastructure, while also moving toward at least a mini-Grand Bargain on fiscal matters. The path seemed to be through bipartisan coalitions in the Senate, forcing action in the House. To get there, Obama did not take a “my-way-or-the-highway” approach.
But it did not take long before it became clear that the underlying pathology in contemporary American politics had not abated. The failure of the background-check bill to get 60 votes in the Senate was followed by Republican cosponsor Pat Toomey saying that many of his colleagues voted against it because the president was for it. Tellingly, Obama did not overreach on the gun bill; he did not demand an assault-weapons ban or a limitation on magazines. But a more humble approach made no difference.
How has Obama responded? One way is to be more aggressive at reaching out to the public, traveling across the country to make his case. But except on the gun issue, he has not overpromised on his capacity to move the public to demand action that will pay off; he knows that most Republicans in the House and Senate are either immune from those pleas or more concerned with narrow slivers of right-wing activists than the public as a whole.