CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If President Barack Obama wins re-election in November, the Democrats' agenda for the financial policy realm is likely to be far more about defending their past achievements than scoring new ones.
In interviews with lawmakers here, Democrats said that this election is their opportunity to cement the Dodd-Frank Act, which Republicans have vowed to scale back if they take power next year.
"I can't imagine an ambitious agenda coming out of Democrats in Congress," said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., who is retiring from Congress, in reference to the next 12 months. "Their energies will be taken by the effort to protect the reforms that we passed."
Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, agreed.
"I think that if we can take the House again, we can make sure that Dodd-Frank does what it's intended to do," he said.
Politically, the best-case scenario for Democrats involves the reelection of President Obama, holding onto their narrow majority in the Senate, and eking out control of the House — an outcome that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi argued this week is possible.
But neutral observers say a more likely outcome would resemble the status quo in Washington — Democrats retaining the White House and holding onto Senate control, while Republicans maintain control of the House.
Under either scenario, some GOP buy-in would be necessary to pass legislation, since no one expects the Democrats to hold a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
Democrats argue that it will be up to the Republicans — on a range of issues affecting the economy — to decide whether they are going to continue a legislative strategy that the Democrats characterize as obstructionism.
"If the president wins, as we expect that he will, then the Republicans will have to make a choice," said Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director, during an event this week in Charlotte hosted by Politico. "Are they going to continue down the path they've been on … or will they make a change?"
In financial policy, the one major area where there is bipartisan agreement on the need for congressional action is the reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. There is also a widespread belief that a reform bill can only become law if Democrats and Republicans work together to find a consensus.
"I think ultimately it's going to take compromise," Green said. "I don't think either side is going to have its way."
To reach a deal, Democrats and some of the more conservative members of the Republican Party will have to overcome an ideological disagreement about whether the federal government should continue to provide a backstop to the U.S. housing market as well as a significant amount of mutual distrust on the issue.
Last week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Republicans blamed the Obama Administration for failing to keep its word that it would provide a more detailed plan on reform of the government-sponsored enterprises. This week in Charlotte, House Democrats faulted their GOP counterparts for not moving forward with a plan of their own — after trumpeting their own ideas when Democrats controlled the House.
"It's extraordinary how little the committee has done in two years," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, who is also retiring from Congress this year. "I think it's been one of the great legislative failures."
Members of both parties insist publicly that it is possible to pass a bill to reform Fannie and Freddie in 2013. Privately, though, some insiders acknowledge that it will be extremely difficult to move reform of the housing giants onto the national agenda during a year in which deficit reduction is expected to dominate the political debate.
While a law to reform the government-sponsored enterprises appears to be a long shot in 2013, it seems more likely that the Obama Administration will lay its own cards on the table next year. The administration released a white paper on the reform of Fannie and Freddie in February 2011, in which it presented three different options but did not endorse any of them.
Today, some on Capitol Hill believe that the administration has done more work behind the scenes than it has shown publicly and is waiting until after the election to release a more detailed reform plan.
The other issue that is expected to dominate financial policy discussions next year — as it has for the last three years — is Dodd-Frank.
While congressional Democrats seem to be relatively united in defending the law itself, some Democrats are joining their Republican counterparts in pressuring the agencies responsible for implementing the law to adopt the suggestions of industry.
At a real-estate industry forum Wednesday in Charlotte, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said that he wants to help industry officials make their case to regulators about the burdens some of their new proposals impose.
"I think we need to be at that table when you say, 'Hey, here's what's happening,'" Begich said. "We need to intervene and make sure these regulations do not end up so burdensome that people even in the industry are no longer interested in following them."
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., agreed, saying that he supports Dodd-Frank, but is afraid that the regulators will go too far.
"We need you at the table," said Cardin, who is co-chair of the Senate Real Estate Caucus, told industry representatives. "And I'll tell you, we're with you. I want that homeowner to get a loan. I want to sell that house. I want more activity. I want banks making loans to businesses, which you're not doing today. So we absolutely need more certainty."
In an interview, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., questioned whether the actions of bank examiners are unduly stemming the flow of credit from banks to small businesses.
"There's a lot of companies, small businesses, that have a lot of assets tied up in their real estate," Hagan said. "And with this downturn, the value of real estate in some cases has gone down. We've got to continue looking at being sure that they can renew their lines of credit and look at how we can continue to help small businesses grow."
In this context, one of the most important implications of the presidential election in the banking world is the winner's ability to make appointments to head various agencies.
For example, at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Martin Gruenberg is currently serving as acting director, but an Obama victory would likely pave the way for the Senate to confirm him to a five-year term in the position.
Likewise, at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray's recess appointment as director expires at the end of 2013. Obama's reelection would ensure that a Republican does not take over as the head of that agency.