Second Term Another Chance For Obama, Congress To Work Together

Ahead of the president's State of the Union address, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker about the state of relations between the White House and Congress.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The success of President Obama's second term agenda will rest in part on his ability to work with Congress. For more on that, Ross Baker joins us. He's a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He joins us from the studios there.

Thanks for being with us.

ROSS BAKER: Thanks, Rachel. Nice to be with you.

MARTIN: So, we heard Ari outline some of the themes that the president is likely to hit in his State of the Union Address. Big issues here: proposals on stricter gun control, immigration reform, a budget deal. How might the president and Congress find a way forward on these issues? I mean, some of this is obviously very controversial.

BAKER: It's very controversial and the president and Members of Congress come to it from somewhat different perspectives. The president, of course, has won his second term. He's not eligible for a third, so he can be fairly bold in what he proposes. For Members of Congress, particular Members of the House - who are up 2014 and those senators who are up in 2014 - it's a different proposition entirely. And they've got to approach it in a much more cautious way, trying to look for the traps and the snares they might encounter, embracing any of the president's very bold agenda.

MARTIN: So if the president goes bold and House Republicans in particular politically need to act more cautiously, where's the common ground? Any room for compromise on any of these issues?

BAKER: I think there is. Certainly, just getting those issues out and discussed, I think what's emerged from the discussions over the last several weeks I think has been a sense that's - let's look at, gun control. There seems to be a consensus developing around the idea of universal background checks.

On immigration, there are just a lot of different varieties, of approaches. President, of course, wants a very clear path to citizenship for the 11 million people who are here illegally. Others, particularly on the Republican side, might be inclined to go along with legalization but probably not a path to citizenship, except by imposing very, very stringent conditions on people who've been here illegally.

So, the way that these things shake out I think is going to be determined by both the president and the Members of Congress kind of looking at it and seeing what they can sell to their various constituencies.

MARTIN: President Obama is sometimes criticized for really giving only broad outlines for his policies, while leaving actual drafting of legislation to Congress. What do you make of that? As a strategy has it been effective?

BAKER: Well, I think the president is expressing a kind of confidence in the institutional vitality of Congress, by putting this responsibility on them. One of the things that impresses me so much is the fact that on the Senate side, immigration is being dealt with through the Judiciary Committee in what's known on Capitol Hill as Regular Order. That is, they're going to hold hearings. They've had witnesses already. On the subject of, let's say gun control, just try to process legislation in a more orderly fashion, rather than having it cobbled together late at night by congressional staff people.

And I think that the president really does want Congress to shoulder the burden, which they, I think, really do want to do themselves.

MARTIN: And finally, it's probably fair to say that at best, perhaps, the relationship between President Obama and some of the congressional leadership, particularly on the House side with the Speaker of the House John Boehner, that that relationship has been troubled, chilly. Do you sense a change in that in the coming year?

BAKER: Rachel, I see a very interesting change actually concerning the House Democrats, who really were out of the picture prior to this last election. Because the Democrats gained some seats and because the Republicans caucus has become so fractious, the Democrats have miraculously become relevant in the House of Representatives. And the president is increasingly interested in cultivating House Democrats. And John Boehner has needed House Democrats to get things passed that he wanted.

So I think there is certainly a big change in the relationship between the president and people of his own party in the House of Representatives.

MARTIN: Ross Baker, he's a professor of political science at Rutgers University. Thanks so much for being with us.

BAKER: Thank you, Rachel.

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MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News.

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