WASHINGTON – President Obama passed the 100-day mark of his second term facing questions about whether his political capital is already disappearing. Republicans took delight in his discomfort. But they have their own 100-day question to answer: What have they done since November to turn around their fortunes?
The president has had a difficult spring. His gun legislation, though it mustered more than 50 votes, was blocked in the Senate. His advisers are more optimistic about immigration reform, but the measure faces serious obstacles, especially in the House. Implementation of his health care law worries some members of his own party. And if there is genuine progress on the budget, no one has been able to describe it.
What do Republicans have to show politically for the president’s travails? So far, there is little to suggest they have truly begun to solve the problems highlighted by Mitt Romney’s loss to Obama last November, party weaknesses that were cited in a post-election report by a Republican National Committee task force.
Congressional Republicans still have far lower approval ratings than Obama, although so do congressional Democrats. But Republicans also have taken positions on issues that have left them on the wrong side of public opinion. Those issues include background checks for gun purchases, the best way to deal with the budget (spending cuts alone vs. a combination of cuts and taxes) and, to a lesser extent, whether illegal immigrants should be given a path to citizenship.
In a Washington Post-ABC News survey, seven out of 10 Americans said the GOP is out of touch with the concerns “of most people” in the country. Neither Obama nor the Democratic Party has sterling ratings on this question. But the Republican deficit is far bigger than that of the other two. Even 49 percent of Republicans said their party is out of touch.
Republican opposition to universal background checks for gun purchasers continues to reverberate. The opposition may threaten few individual members. But it is likely to hurt Republicans in areas and among voters they need to win presidential races — suburbs and female voters being prime examples.
After an election in which their nominee won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, many Republicans said it was time to find a new strategy to attract Hispanics to the party. That brightened prospects for comprehensive immigration reform, which former President George W. Bush tried to enact in his second term, only to be thwarted by his own party.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose conservative credentials were not in question, took the lead in working out a bipartisan proposal as a member of the Senate Gang of Eight that included Republicans John McCain, Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, S.C. The group’s work raised the hopes of reform advocates that this was the year for action.
Since then, criticism has been rising on the right, echoing complaints from conservatives that killed prior reform efforts. National Review’s latest cover shows the Florida senator with the headline “Rubio’s Folly.”
The fact that many of the Republicans who might run for president in 2016 favor immigration reform reflects concern that the party not be cast negatively when this process ends. If Republicans end up blocking the bill, or even if it passes but over significant Republican opposition, they could pay a significant price with the Hispanic community.
Republicans have not broken through on the economy or the budget. Over the past three years, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has offered a series of comprehensive blueprints, but he has yet to muster broad public support for the main elements of his package.
As long as Obama is in the White House, many Republicans will define success as stopping bad things from happening. That could be a trap, as the party trades short-term legislative “victories” for what could become longer-term problems. Obama has second-term problems, but in this case, politics might not be a zero-sum game. If Republicans fail to find a message and an agenda that appeal to a broader constituency, they could continue to struggle to win a national election.