How Obama is wisely navigating Washington

Two weeks ago, President Obama was getting criticism from all sides, with liberals arguing he was squandering an opportunity to pass major gun control legislation and centrists and conservatives casting him as not providing enough leadership on deficit reduction.

Nevermind all that. Obama is now not only moving forward on three of his biggest policy priorities for a second term, but has managed to recruit an impressive and surprising set of allies.

On Sunday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), perhaps the most important figure in the Republican Party because of his ethnicity and potential presidential candidacy, was appearing on seven political talk shows to tout immigration reform, giving a huge bi-partisan lift to Obama’s plans on that issue.

At the same time, the families of the victims of the Newtown shooting, along with senators Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.), two members with “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association, were aligning with the president for increased background checks for gun purchases. And a bi-partisan group of senators is working with Obama on his deficit reduction ideas.

Republicans can still present roadblocks

None of this is guaranteed to become law. Republicans, particularly in the House, remain wary of creating a pathway to citizenship for people not legally in the United States, raising taxes on the wealthy or adding any additional restrictions on gun ownership or purchasing, the underlying ideas of Obama’s proposals.

And some of his new allies, particularly Rubio, Toomey and Manchin, are not eager to be described as friends of Obama. They have all emphasized they are working with individual senators, not the White House, in writing legislation.

But that’s part of the wisdom of what the president has done. Both he and the first lady delivered passionate speeches on the urgency of gun control over the last week. At the same time though, Obama and his team have allowed the senators to drive the legislative process on the issue. And they are trying to elevate the voices of the victims of the shooting , who may have more influence than Obama in swaying anti-gun control senators.

On Saturday, the president let Francine Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son Ben was among those killed in Newtown, deliver his weekly radio address, the first time a person other than Obama or Biden has done so.

Cautious about progress

These tactics are a significant shift. In 2011 and last year, the president held numerous meetings with House Speaker John Boehner on a deficit reduction agreement. The perception that Boehner was working closely with Obama made conservatives very suspicious and weakened the speaker’s ability to sell the potential deal to other members of the House, who strongly oppose anything that Obama supports. On immigration and gun control, Manchin, Toomey and Rubio, all of whom have bases of support that are strongly anti-Obama, have not held long meetings with the president and can credibly claim he is not forcing their hand on these issues.

White House officials are still cautious about the progress of the last two weeks. They argue that while Republicans want  to enact immigration reform in part to appeal to Hispanic voters, those incentives don’t exist on gun control or deficit reduction. And the president has come under fire from liberals, including rising star Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for his proposal to cut Social Security benefits as a part of a broader package to reduce the long-term federal budget deficit.

But what’s happening is that Obama, whose first term suffered from an unexpected event (a deep, long recession) that he had little influence on, is now benefiting from a set of factors largely outside of his control. A bloc of Republican senators, including the president’s rival in 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), seem eager to illustrate Washington can work and pass comprehensive legislation. Rubio and other Republicans have concluded blocking immigration legislation is akin to conceding the 2016 election. The Newtown families and ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords are using their outsized influence to keep the national media tuned to gun control legislation.

The results could be groundbreaking. At least for Democrats, Obama’s legacy is already secure, as the first black president and the man who delivered universal health care. But comprehensive immigration reform, gun control legislation and deficit reduction, passed with significant numbers of Republican votes, would also show Obama was able to lead members of both parties during his tenure.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr