But on two issues which have long vexed Washington - immigration and the Middle East - Obama looks poised to make key, generational breakthroughs.
Immigration reform will roll out in the next few weeks, just in time for the February 12 State of the Union address. Rather than a piece by piece approach, Obama is expected to make a broad proposal:
The White House will argue that its solution for illegal immigrants is not an amnesty, as many critics insist, because it would include fines, the payment of back taxes and other hurdles for illegal immigrants who would obtain legal status, the officials said.
The president’s plan would also impose nationwide verification of legal status for all newly hired workers; add visas to relieve backlogs and allow highly skilled immigrants to stay; and create some form of guest-worker program to bring in low-wage immigrants in the future.
Immigration reform is popular with the president's minority and youth base, and organized labor seems to be ending its longtime ambivalence on the issue.
So what about the other side?The political side-effect of an immigration debate is it will further split and box in the Republican Party. The business, "pragmatist" wing of the party has long wanted a stable source of cheap immigrant labor. But as we've seen from countless 2010 and 2012 primaries, they're outnumbered by the tea partyish nativist wing.
These modern Know Nothings like Steve King want an immigration policy of "Enforce The Law," but won't yet openly admit that the implication of that, what they really want, is mass deportation.
The aging rural base of the GOP is uncomfortable with a multi-cultural society and wants to roll the clock back to an imagined 1950s. The goal seems to be a redefinition of rights - voting, of course, but also education, health care, employment, due process - as belonging to "citizens only" rather than to humans, and then redefining citizenship itself, as King seeks to do with his proposal to repeal the 14th Amendment's birthright citizenship clause.
Not to violate Godwin's Law. But since the right has been playing the Nazi Card - inaccurately, as it turns out - on gun control, I'll just say that this sounds eerily familiar.
The Nazi card gets played on the Middle East, too. Dissent on Israel policy is tolerated more in Tel Aviv than it is in Washington.So the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense is another breakthrough moment.
Now, I have some other issues with Hagel. Democratic presidents are far too eager to put Republicans in charge at the Pentagon. And Hagel said some anti-gay things a decade and a half ago. But so did a lot of people, and I've never seen public opinion move as rapidly on any issue as it has on gay equality. So Hagel's not alone.
But the focus against Hagel is Israel policy. Confirmed or not - and I expect he will be - Hagel, or more accurately, Obama, has already changed the rhetoric if not yet the substance. Peter Beinart at Daily Beast:
(Hagel's) nomination has been about more than just the policies he’d pursue at the Pentagon. It’s been about the terms of legitimate discourse in Washington, D.C.It's a tactic that's been fought hard, whenever the slightest dissent from the Likud Party line is heard. It's even, so one current accusation goes, being pushed through shadowy use of paid social media. (Here's a second link; the original original source has already vanished.)
Simply by being nominated, Hagel has dealt a blow to the silly, lazy charges of anti-Semitism that have grown commonplace in Washington in recent years. Over the past week or so, for the first time I can remember, the Jewish right’s tactic of calling people they disagree with on Israel policy anti-Semitic has begun to backfire.
Strictly speaking Department of Defense isn't a diplomatic job. But it's a key part of the national security team and Hagel if confirmed would be in The Big Room when the Big Decisions are made. Having a different voice in that room could make a big difference, if Middle East peace is going to be a serious second term effort.What’s new about the Hagel case isn’t the promiscuous charge of anti-Semitism. It’s the pushback against it. One New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, has called the claim that Hagel is an anti-Semite “disgusting.” Another, Nick Kristof, has called it “shameful.” In The Washington Post, Richard Cohen has accused Stephens of “character assassination.” Abrams’s boss at the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, has forcefully rejected even the claim that Hagel is anti-Israel, let alone anti-Semitic.And in response, lo and behold, the accusers are starting to retreat.