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Obama’s Fourth-Quarter Drive

Bill Belichick at a press conference
New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. Photo courtesy WEBN-TV

I have no idea which team President Obama favored in this week’s Super Bowl, but he had to be impressed by New England’s fourth-quarter comeback and stunning goal-line interception that secured victory in a dire situation.

With last month’s State of the Union address and yesterday’s budget proposal to Congress, the president is himself on the opening drive of the fourth quarter in his term in office. How you handicap his presidency depends a lot on which political team you root for, but in most of the ways in which presidents are scored, he is pretty far behind. He is now scrambling to obtain field position for a late rally.

Democrats held majorities in both houses of Congress when Obama ran his first presidential campaign. He swept into office with his party firmly in control, which is how the new White House quarterback ran up such a big early score with the passage of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, and an enormous fiscal stimulus that included bounties for first-time homebuyers and “cash for clunkers.”

But that quarter ended with the economy still deep in stagnation and Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives in an anti-Obamacare backlash. The president still had enough firepower to secure a second term as his presidency reached halftime, but he was forced to settle for field goals by accepting spending caps and a tax law that was not nearly as aggressively tilted against prosperous Americans as he wanted.

In the third quarter, nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the president. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead, most of them at the hands of a ruler whom Obama declared had to go years earlier - but whom he backed away from attacking, even after the use of chemical weapons crossed Obama’s own “red line.” Russia grabbed Crimea and backed rebels elsewhere in Ukraine who shot down a passenger jet. The militant Islamic State group used the vacuum Obama created in Iraq and the chaos he tolerated in Syria to carve out a huge safe haven for carnage. Now we are learning that a two-way rat line runs from terrorist recruiters in western Europe, who helped facilitate the recent carnage in Paris, directly to that Islamic State “caliphate” in the region where Obama has hollowly declared victory. If Obama’s foreign policy has succeeded in anything, it is in uniting allies as disparate as Israel and Saudi Arabia in the conviction that he cannot be counted upon in a crisis.

On the domestic side, the president claims points for the economic recovery that is finally gathering a bit of momentum (though last week’s preliminary 2.6 percent GDP growth figure amounts to just three yards and a cloud of dust) and an unemployment rate that is down sharply from when he took office. Fair enough - since a president gets blamed for all sorts of things that are not his doing or beyond his control, he gets to take some credit for similar occurrences. But the president’s own declarations of progress collide with his argument that the nation’s economic bounty is flowing to only a handful of skilled players at the top of the salary scale, while the lunch-bucket folks on the line of scrimmage scrape to get by. He has responded by sticking to his game plan: submitting a budget that calls for higher taxes on the affluent (yet again), more government spending on infrastructure (remember those “shovel-ready” projects that didn’t stimulate the economy with Obama’s earlier stimulus), and a plan to provide two years of free community college, which is not going to please Obama’s many fans on the payrolls of four-year colleges and universities that are fighting for enrollment. Obama has already been sacked on a plan to add taxes to Section 529 college savings plans.

But he faces taking a safety when the Supreme Court, sometime in the next few months, rules on whether the subsidy scheme that underpins Obamacare in more than two-thirds of the states is legal. This is the equivalent of a booth review of the Court’s earlier ruling that the Affordable Care Act passed constitutional muster. If that ruling is overturned, the president’s biggest highlight reel play is going to be nullified. Even while that case is pending, the administration is becoming deeply worried about eventual fan reaction once Americans learn, in the just-started tax season, that many of them face penalties for not having health insurance or unexpected tax bills for receiving subsidies last year for which they were in fact ineligible.

Obama correctly noted in his State of the Union that he is quite good at winning elections - for himself. His party’s congressional results since he took office indicate that he is not nearly so good at positioning fellow Democrats to do their own celebration dances. Hillary Clinton has probably already noticed this, but she seems preoccupied with trying to win acceptance from a party base that is rooting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren to get into the 2016 presidential game.

So Obama is playing for his own title right now. Again depending on how you view the president, you might believe he is intent on building a legacy to make America a better country or on building a legacy to promote bigger post-presidential speaking fees and better sales of his next autobiography. Either way, the game has just reached the fourth quarter; the president is behind, and he is looking to stage a big comeback. He might want to find room in his Cabinet for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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