From Fiscal Cliff to Immigration Reform, What Will the Next Four Years Bring?

President Obama has a second term to address major issues, including immigration, the fiscal cliff and health care. But with Congress still divided, compromise and cooperation may remain elusive. Gwen Ifill talks to Third Way’s John Cowan and The Wall Street Journal’s Naftali Bendavid on the reality for the next four years.

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    Now, what issues face the second-term president?

    Pressing business awaits the White House and Congress, even before Inauguration Day. A lame-duck Congress is scheduled to go into session next week to deal with the most immediate challenge, a combination of expiring tax cuts and spending cuts — taxes and spending cuts that could drive the economy toward that so-called fiscal cliff next year.

    The president must also still defend his health care law, which remains unpopular, and make good on his promise to jump-start immigration reform.

    For a look at those realities ahead, we turn to John Cowan, the president of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank here in Washington, and Naftali Bendavid, who covers Congress for The Wall Street Journal.

    Naftali, we saw John Boehner come out today and say — sound like he was finding middle ground. We heard the president call John Boehner and Harry Reid and sounded like he was extending some sort of, I don't know, just "day after the election" olive leaf.

    Is that true?

  • NAFTALI BENDAVID, The Wall Street Journal:

    I think so. It was really striking to see the conciliatory language on both sides, particularly with Speaker Boehner.

    He was very careful in the words that he used. He even used a teleprompter, which is something he doesn't usually do, as though to he wanted to make sure he used the right language. And he took no questions from reporters.

    I think, early on, politicians know that voters want compromise, they want conciliation. And so the first thing out of the box was to talk in that kind of a way.

    But what we don't know yet is whether they're saying that because they think it's what voters want to hear or because it's really going to lead to some kind of actual middle ground.


    Do we have any way to this know this? It's not like this fiscal cliff issue, which we have talked about on this program a lot, is something that has just come out of nowhere.

    So, do we know? And both sides, the Romney campaign, and the Obama campaign, though they didn't talk about it much, they knew this was going to be the first thing up when they — when and if they won. So, do we know that there have been conversations going on? Have there been negotiations that we don't see trying to get ahead of this?

  • JONATHAN COWAN, Third Way:

    Well, I mean, the surprise of this election isn't the fiscal cliff. As you say, Gwen, everybody knows that was coming.

    The surprise of this election is that we spent all this time and all this money, and we ended up actually almost exactly where we started in terms of the people who have to negotiate this thing out.

    What that means is their only option is to compromise. There is no other option. Right? They said for a year, the election will resolve this one way or the other. Well, now they have got to compromise.

    There are conversations going on behind the scenes for sure. And they have been for a while. But they have been informal, so that no one was forced prior to the election to see a story running on PBS or in The Wall Street Journal that said, they're negotiating.

    But they are now moving in earnest. And Naftali is dead on. They're trying to do — to send exactly the right signals that they should be, all of the leaders Boehner, Reid, and Obama, which is, the electorate sent us a message that go back, go back to Washington, work on this, lay aside your ideologies, and actually try to get something done.


    I feel like I have heard this before on the day after an election. We saw Vice President Biden today tell reporters on Air Force Two that he thinks the fever will break, but he didn't offer any evidence to back that up.

    Why should people who voted to return these people, the same leadership, to Washington, believe that something will change just because of an election?


    Well, I would say there are two reasons.

    The first reason is simply that now people are no longer jockeying for power. In the last few months, everybody has been very aware that maybe the Republicans will retake the White House. Maybe the Democrats will retake the House. And so there's been a little bit of maneuvering, and it was really impossible to get anything done.

    Now the music has stopped. Everybody is sitting down in their chairs, and, really, if there's an opportunity to move forward, this is it.

    But the other reason is that, if they don't do something, both about the fiscal cliff in the short term and the broader deficit issue in the long term, there's going to be a lot of consequences. There will be consequences for the economy, for the markets.

    I think there will be political consequences for the people involved. These people know about self-preservation, politically speaking. And I think they know that, if they don't do something, they're going to pay the price.


    Another issue that the president brought up, put on the plate in the closing days of the campaign, when he gave an interview he thought was off the record to The Des Moines Register, and said that immigration would be one of the first things he would act on.

    And he mentioned it again in his speech last night. Is there movement happening on immigration reform, especially given light of the election results?


    We will absolutely see immigration reform before the midterm. I don't want to talk about the next election because everybody is still trying to catch up from this one.


    Thank you.



    But we are — we will absolutely see a serious attempt at immigration reform coming from the Obama administration, for two reasons. One is, this issue just can't keep hanging out there. We have got 12 million Americans. Something's got to be done about it. And it's got to be addressed.

    But the politics of this, as Naftali said, if nothing else, politicians are out for their own survival. Obama just got elected in no small part because Hispanic voters turned out in record numbers and voted for him in record numbers.

    And the inverse, the other side of that coin is true, Romney, et al, looked at this election and said, my God, we're alienating a rising part of the electorate, we have got to make right with them.

    And there is common ground to be had on immigration. There's a grand bargain to be struck there.


    There's a grand bargain to be struck on little things. Like we talked, there's maybe agreement on the DREAM Act.

    But is there a grand bargain or is there an appetite for a larger overhaul?


    I mean, my hunch is that Republicans know that they can't keep on losing Hispanic voters the way that they are, that they are going to be a lot more conciliatory.

    Harry Reid today said, look, I just need a few Republicans. I can get 90 percent of the Democrats to back comprehensive, sweeping immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship.

    And I think he just may get it, simply because the Republicans know that this path for them is a path toward permanent minority status.


    Pure, sheer politics of it, not because there's a better idea that someone has come up with and put on the table?


    Well, I don't want to be overly cynical. Hopefully…



    No, not you.


    There will be — this is a problem that does have to be solved for the benefit of the country, but I think these things often tend to happen either when there's a crisis or there's a political imperative. And I think we're getting to that point right now.

    And I think that's why we might see some movement.


    I also think, Gwen, on immigration — and this is important — Democrats had a shot at this before under George Bush. Right?




    We really played this one out.

    They're not going to make the same mistake again. They're not going to go for, if we don't get everything on immigration reform, we're going to walk away from it, because that would be crazy. They have got a president who wants to do it.

    So, there are a lot of ways to get this done. For example, we have put out a proposal that says, you give young people 30 and under, you give them immediate citizenship or a path, quick path to it. But people who are over, you give them a path to legality.

    So, there's a lot of ways to carve this if what you're trying to do is solve the problem and solve the political problem.


    Another issue, health care. We know that if Gov. Romney had been elected, he said that one of the first things he was going to do was move to dismantle Obamacare.

    So now that this has not happened, do we have any reason to believe that everything is safe, everything now gets implemented? Is the fight over?


    Obamacare is going to be the law of the land. It's going to get fully implemented.

    This election may not have resolved everything. It resolved that issue. That is done and over with. There will be tweaks to Obamacare. Obama himself proposed some even during the election season.

    And there's another huge health care issue looming out there, which is, are we really going to find a way to get health care costs under control, which we started to do with Obamacare, but didn't finish.


    There is also another issue with Obamacare, which that it has to be now implemented by the states.

    Now, there have been governors that have said that they are going to oppose implementing parts of it in their states. And exit polls suggested that a lot of the public still doesn't like this law.


    Right, I think 49 percent or something like that.


    Yes, certainly in some places.




    And so this is a battle that is going to continue, but it is going to continue at the sort of relationship between the president and the states. It's not so much going to play out in Congress.

    But there is another issue that affects all these things that we haven't talked about so much, which is that President Obama now doesn't have to think about re-election.


    Well, that was my next question.


    Yes. I mean, all he really has to think about is his legacy.

    And so far, you could argue that he has accomplished quite a bit, whether you like it or not, from health care, to the stimulus plan, to Dodd-Frank. There's all kinds of stuff. And now he wants to, I think, focus on a deficit plan and focus on immigration reform.


    But isn't there danger for overreach?


    There is, but I think that if he wants to really accomplish something, he knows he has to work with Congress.

    And we're going to see. The next few weeks are going to be situation where we see if somebody overplays their hand, if somebody underplays their hand. People are going to feel each other out and see where they stand in terms of compromise. It is going to be very interesting the next few weeks.


    Final thought.


    But I would just say on that I think there is a danger for overreach.

    But Obama was careful last night. His remarks were fairly humble, and — for the historic achievement that he made last night.

    And I think Obama and Boehner and Reid all know that their legacies are tied together and they reside around one thing: Can they find common ground?


    Jon Cowan of Third Way, Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal, thank you, both. I hope your optimism is justified.

    You can find more on the future of the Affordable Care Act from our partners at Kaiser Health News. That's on our website.