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Column: A Critical Summer Looms for the White House

There are two widely discussed scenarios that could unfold in Washington this summer.

The first, embraced by the White House and some Democrats, is upbeat: The immigration bill passes the Senate with a big margin, making it almost impossible for House Republicans to resist; more people start signing up for President Barack Obama’s health-care law, and even though no fiscal grand bargain is in the offing, an improving economy gives the president a stronger hand in dealing with Republicans on extending the debt ceiling and on spending bills.

The so-called scandals recede: It becomes clear there was no political interference with the Internal Revenue Service, and the other controversies don’t resonate. The Middle East is still a cauldron, but it hasn’t gotten worse, and the administration’s pivot to Asia seems sensible.

The second sequence of events, foreseen by many Republicans and a few Democrats, is more dire: The once bright hopes for an immigration bill this year slip amid the usual petty partisanship; all other legislation and appointments are stalled, and an ugly fight over the debt ceiling rattles markets and hampers the economy.

Interest in the health-care exchanges remains lackadaisical as insurance premiums increase in anticipation of the law taking effect. An investigation of the IRS controversy by the Justice Department lacks credibility and the scandal persists.

In Syria and Iran, either the United States becomes embroiled in dangerous confrontations or Obama is seen as a feckless wimp. Republicans are licking their chops about winning control of the Senate next year and increasing their majority in the House, making the final Obama years a nightmare of recrimination, investigations and veto fights.

Obama, who prides himself on taking the long view and not getting caught up in the passions of the moment, rejects the notion of such make-or-break moments. Only a little more than 10 percent of the second term is complete.

Yet it isn’t unusual to establish a framework for success or failure of presidencies by the end of the first summer of the second term.

Eight years ago, George W. Bush’s post-re-election high hopes were dashed by Labor Day after an ill-considered effort to overhaul Social Security, a botched response to Hurricane Katrina and an increasingly discredited war in Iraq.

Two decades earlier, Ronald Reagan, despite the subsequent Iran-Contra debacle, set the benchmark for success: He was guided by Treasury Secretary Jim Baker on the domestic front, and a sweeping tax reform measure was on course. In foreign policy, Secretary of State George Shultz, working privately with First Lady Nancy Reagan, was taking control of a more measured, less bellicose approach.

There are, to be sure, events that could change the dynamics of the final three years: a real scandal, a war or terrorist act, or a national tragedy that rallies the public.

Nevertheless, if the bad-case scenario plays out, it’s hard to see how the president recovers momentum. Alternatively, if he is able to make progress in carrying through two of the most significant domestic achievements in years — health care and immigration reform — while presiding over an economy recovering from the worst crisis since the Depression and the ending of two wars, the question might be: Which coin or dollar denomination will eventually bear his likeness?

In general, there’s not that much Obama can do this summer to affect the outcome. The administration has been slow in the critical task of enlisting people to sign up for the health exchanges. Ultimately, success will depend on the psychology of healthy young people, whether they see a need for insurance.

On immigration, success or failure largely rests with inside calculations on Capitol Hill.

There also isn’t much in the president’s toolbox to improve the economy. Congressional Republicans are interested only in thwarting Obama. What matters are the Federal Reserve and consumer confidence. The president has much more latitude on foreign affairs, though there is little indication so far of any clear policy.

It may be that on all these issues, he comes out even, doing better in some, less well in others.

It’s just as likely that the next three months will be either Obama’s seminal season or his summer of discontent.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.