Viewpoint: Why Obama’s Second Term Isn’t Doomed

Yes, presidents tend to get stymied during their follow-up act, but Obama also has bright days ahead

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President Obama is sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts as the 44th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009 in Washington.

Conventional wisdom holds that second presidential terms tend to be somehow fatally cursed—Eisenhower and the U-2; Nixon and Watergate; Reagan and Iran-contra; Clinton and impeachment; George W. Bush and Iraq and the financial collapse. The implication is clear for a newly re-elected president like Barack Obama: be careful what you wish for.

As usual, though, the conventional wisdom obscures as much as it captures. Second terms are perilous, but so are first terms: politics are always perilous. Looking ahead (itself perilous!) it’s likely that Obama, if he is like his predecessors, will find himself able to do one or two big things domestically and freer than he has been to operate globally as he wishes.

(MORE: Joe Klein on Obama’s Mandate for Moderation)

To say “one or two big things domestically” may sound cynical, but it’s worth remembering that, except for the stray retiring lawmaker, no other player but Obama has run his last election, so while the president doesn’t have to worry about the voters now, everybody else does.

Which means the coming fiscal negotiations are critical not only for all the screamingly obvious reasons but because the sooner a tough vote is cast the better, for it gives lawmakers who may have taken a risk more time afterwards to make the case at home for their departure from dogma before election day rolls around again.

In this sense, Obama’s clock is moving in different direction than Congress’s; the freer he feels as he moves through the years, the more constrained lawmakers will feel as their re-elections approach. So he should do what he feels he must do at home quickly.

(MORE: Fareed Zakaria on How To Build Trust and Infrastructure)

Foreign policy is another matter. Presidents have stumbled overseas as the years have passed; more often, however, they have left lasting marks. Reagan met his first Soviet premier, Gorbachev, in 1985. Clinton very nearly achieved the impossible with Middle East talks at Camp David in the waning days of his second term. Bush 43, after ridding himself of Donald Rumsfeld in the wake of the 2006 midterms, found his footing on a range of issues, including North Korea.

Part of the reason for this is institutional. Presidents always have more leeway in foreign policy, and they tend to look abroad for legacy work. Obama will be no different.

Yes, there may be scandals and mistakes, and one suspects the president’s approval ratings will have some grim days. History shows us, though, that there will likely be some very bright days, too.

MORE: For Obama, Survival is the New Winning

6 comments
MTATL67
MTATL67

He will have a good second term with the support of the majority of Americans that put him back into office and the input of those that didn't. If people like Boehner and McConnell, Cantor, Issa etc choose not to be part of the dialogue that’s ok because they can be replaced in 2014    

elotrolado8
elotrolado8

YES.  Let's pressure Obama to be audacious, proactively leading Congress on the big issues, dropping immediate capitulation to Republican demands as a strategy and more active in using the bully pulpit and his reelection capital  to go after the big problems like healthcare costs (improving ACA by allowing states to negotiate medication prices and moving away from fee for service), rebuilding our infrastructure (roads, bridges, ports, internet) while creating good jobs, and continuing the move to shrink our military budget and destructive role as world super policeman.

fcs251
fcs251

Obama wil do exactly what he has done for the past 4 years...nothing.

ramu.kanthamneni
ramu.kanthamneni

Obama might get 

1. Immigration issue (close the borders first and then give Amnesty to all illegal immigrants, who played by rules, but for the legal papers)

2. Reduce the national debt.

3. Middle East issue:  Permanent solution for Israel and Palestine and statehood.  

If he does that  .. he would go down as one of the GREATEST PRESIDENTS ever to be in White house.

LegalBagel
LegalBagel

He maybe gets #1 but it won't be a lasting solution until American immigration policy aligns with the laws of economics.

#2 is more of a stretch, especially given the bad economy and a population that just keeps getting older.

#3 -- about as likely as the Dalai Lama reclaiming Tibet. 

If Obama is going to be a great president, he'll need to figure out how to lead other than from behind.  He can't follow the likes of Harry Reid or Tim Geithner into the history books.  He has to get out from behind Congress and his cabinet.  Of course, there is always the unknown future event that will likely become the hallmark of his presidency (for good or ill).  It will be interesting to see what happens.

MTATL67
MTATL67

With he actual accomplishments that are on record it will be interesting to see how next two years unfolds