The 5 biggest political questions of 2015

Source: Washington Post – Aaron Blake (01/03/2015)

What’s more, the last we saw Obama, he seemed like a guy who had his mojo back. At his year-end press conference, he was loose, sharp and called on only female reporters. Oh, and he publicly criticized Sony for pulling “The Interview,” which turned out to be a pretty strong and successful move.

Does this mean Obama will suddenly return to Washington from his Hawaiian vacation and be a popular president? Of course not. As our own Philip Bump notes, the opposition to Obama is pretty baked-in, and he’ll be hard-pressed to keep upping his approval rating.

But the question is whether he’s popular enough that he’ll have real political capital in dealing with the new Republican-controlled Congress. If Obama’s approval returns to the low-40s, he’s got fewer bargaining chips; if he’s around 50, he can get more concessions — theoretically, at least.

And political capital aside, he’s got his legacy to think about.

2. Does anything get done?

BREAKING: Congress hasn’t gotten much done in recent years. And when it has gotten stuff done, it was generally because it faced a deadline and real consequences for not passing something.

And heck, even then it has blown some of those deadlines (see: sequestration and the 2013 government shutdown).

So now that both chambers are controlled by Republicans for the first time in the Obama administration, does that change?

 Republicans will contend that, now that they have the majorities, they can pass legislation and put it on Obama’s desk, thereby increasing pressure on Obama to sign or veto stuff like the Keystone XL pipeline. Before, the GOP-controlled House could pass a bill and it would get ignored by the Democratic-controlled Senate, and vice versa. And legislation not getting a vote is far less sexy/newsworthy than Obama casting the deciding vote.Of course, it still remains to be seen whether that legislation will actually get to Obama’s desk. Republicans, after all, control 54 Senate seats — not 60 (the threshold for overcoming filibusters). Democrats have criticized the GOP’s use of filibusters in recent years, but it’s now congressional Democrats’ only arrow in the quiver. Expect them to use it. Turnabout is fair play, after all.

And really, there are plenty of reasons to expect stasis. After all, there’s a presidential election on the horizon. Will Republicans pass compromise legislation when they could have Congress and the presidency after the 2016 election? Will Democrats give Republicans the benefit of passing bills that could make the GOP look like the party that can govern and help the 2016 GOP nominee?

It seems unlikely. And with Congress, low expectations should be your M.O.

For what it’s worth, the big-ticket items that Congress might attempt action on include Keystone, immigration, a big transportation bill, tax reform, a new budget and perhaps legislation on law enforcement — body cameras, etc. — in response to unrest in Ferguson and New York City.

The GOP will try to repeal Obamacare again, but that’s not happening. Instead, look for possible changes to the law — especially if the Supreme Court decides against the bill’s supporters in a key case.

3. Does the Democratic Party turn the page?

Besides the presidency, the Democratic Party is arguably in its worst position since the Great Depression. Its deficits in Congress, governorships and state legislatures are at or near their lowest points in more than 80 years.

Democrats will note that Hillary Clinton is currently ahead in 2016 presidential polls, but they’ve got problems in basically any election not involving the Electoral College.

What’s also notable about the Democratic Party is that it’s being led by some very familiar faces. A Clinton is its 2016 frontrunner with almost no other formidable candidates in the mix. Nancy Pelosi returns as House Democratic leader despite losing her speakership four years ago. And as of Saturday, Harry Reid will have led Senate Democrats for a full decade.

So who lead the Democratic Party going forward? And when does the transition begin?

A big hint will be Reid’s reelection decision. He faces a potentially arduous race with popular Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) in 2016 after surprisingly holding his seat in 2010 against tea partier Sharron Angle. And he’ll need to make his decision on whether to seek reelection relatively soon.

The Democratic base is hardly screaming for new blood just yet, but its minority status is only beginning. And nobody likes being in the minority.

4. Can anyone make Hillary Clinton sweat?

People like to say Clinton was the inevitable Democratic nominee in 2008, but she has a much bigger lead in polling today than she did eight years ago. And a lot of it has to do with the aforementioned lack of viable alternatives.

Joe Biden? Not really seen as presidential. Elizabeth Warren? Says she’s not running. Andrew Cuomo? Hasn’t expressed any interest in challenging Clinton. Deval Patrick? Insists he’s not going to run.

Instead, the field of potential challengers to Clinton amounts to a motley crew of unknowns beginning with former senator Jim Webb (D-Va.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer (D) — though not really anymore on that last one.

About the only candidate who really seems to fit the prototype as someone who could be the liberal alternative to Clinton is outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). And while O’Malley certainly has liberal bona fides — the latest being his decision this week to commute the sentences of all Maryland death-row inmates to life in prison — he exits office on a pretty sour note. His approval rating has plummeted and his lieutenant governor lost in the most surprising result of the 2014 election — in large part, the thinking goes, because of unhappiness with O’Malley.We tend to think Clinton’s inevitability is a little overblown; her lead is largely about name ID, which nobody also has (save Biden). But which Democrat who might actually run in 2016 will be able to raise the money and actually give her a run for hers?

We should know by mid-to-late 2015 whether anyone can.

5. Does the GOP field devolve into chaos?

For as boring as the Democratic primary is looking, the GOP primary is looking quite the opposite. Basically, it’s a dozen candidates all clustered between 2 percent and 20 percent — the most open contest in recent history. And almost every potential candidate is a governor or senator who seems to have the potential to compete.

That might seem an embarrassment of riches for the national GOP. But it could turn into an embarrassment, period. That’s because Republicans are wary of infighting — especially after what happened in 2012 (see: “self-deportation” and “King of Bain“). And having 12 candidates on the debate stage fighting to get noticed could be a recipe for disaster.

Look for the GOP establishment to try to rally around a candidate from the outset, perhaps Jeb Bush, attempt to reduce the number of debates and encourage their many candidates to play nice.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it will work. This is a wide-open presidential primary in a party that is still trying to figure out what it is. And that means plenty of factionalism and tussling. Ted Cruz won’t be going after the same voters as Jeb Bush, after all.

The question is how much that can be contained, given the very high stakes involved. It could be a spectacle.