Reporting from Washington — President Obama's victory on healthcare gave him some much-needed political momentum. But he seems disinclined to ride that into another all-in battle this year on his keystone domestic agenda items of climate change and immigration.
Instead, the White House is planning to focus on narrower efforts to pump up the economy, rewrite financial regulation, amend campaign finance laws to limit corporate donations and impose new fees on banks to repay federal bailout funds.
The White House is careful to say that it remains strongly committed to overhauling immigration and limiting greenhouse gases. But so far, the Obama administration has shown little appetite to engage aggressively in crafting legislation and rounding up votes on Capitol Hill for what would probably be deeply partisan fights over those issues as congressional elections near.
Significantly, regardless of the specific issue, Obama so far is following the same playbook he used in the early phase of the healthcare fight: deferring to Congress and giving lawmakers wide latitude in writing legislation and plotting strategy.
"Our approach is to lay out the parameters and to challenge the Congress" to pass bills, said White House senior advisor David Axelrod, adding: "There's this myth that if the president arrives on the steps of the Capitol with stone tablets, people will bow and vote accordingly. I think that's a naive view of how laws are made."
The prospect that the administration will not go all in this year on its signature initiatives alarms several Democratic interest groups. They say a firmer White House hand is needed for the bills to have any chance of passing before November's midterm elections.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, which advocates for a new immigration system, said that with healthcare, "the mistake [the White House] made was to wait too long and leave Congress in charge of the process for too long. And quite frankly, they're on the verge of making a similar mistake with immigration reform."
Similarly, environmentalists want to see action in the Senate on the energy bill that would establish a controversial emissions cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases.
Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said the White House and Democratic congressional leadership "should not . . . move anything that shows gridlock or Democratic division."
Nevertheless, he said, "I would move on energy. If it's a bipartisan bill and you bring in nuclear and offshore [drilling], the Republicans are not going to be able to vote against an energy bill that has that."
The president "has implemented a lot of Republican ideas and goals into broad energy policy," said Joshua Freed, clean-energy policy director for the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. "It's even bigger than saying, 'I want this in the bill.' It's acting."
With the midterm elections approaching, however, Obama's hope may be to demonstrate a level of support just high enough to placate immigration and environmental activists. That way, he need not make the all-out commitment that might further erode his approval ratings just when reelection-minded Democrats in Congress need him to be popular.
"Either one of these two items would evoke a long, divisive debate in the Congress," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Clinton administration domestic policy aide. "There's also the question of how much more division and bitter argument the American people are in the mood for right now.
"My own judgment is that people have had about as much partisanship as they can bear and would not welcome a plunge into a new, emotionally charged issue."
The downside to such an approach is the likely disappointment among blocs of strong Democratic voters.
"At the end of the day, he'll be judged by whether he delivers change and fights to deliver change," Sharry said. Blaming the lack of bipartisan cooperation "won't work well with Latino immigrants. They'll think Obama promised them and didn't do enough."