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.
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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.
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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.