Friday, November 9, 2012

The Curse of the Second Term

Barack Obama and his supporters are jubilant these days, basking in the afterglow of their electoral victory. They haven't been terribly gracious in their victory, either, which I have long found to be a recipe for eventual disaster.

And many scoff at the lessons of history, having just turned conventional wisdom on its ear by successfully waging an entire campaign dedicated solely to smearing the opposition. That isn't really anything new in American politics, but, usually, when a politician is re–elected to office, his/her supporters have an idea what he/she intends to do.

But I spoke to many Obama supporters during the general election campaign, and I asked them sincerely — I asked some multiple times — what the incumbent wanted to do if given a second term. Not a single one could tell me what Obama's second–term agenda was.

Perhaps that was the prudent thing. After all, most presidents who win re–election do so after they have expressed some kind of a grand vision — and then they get shot down (often by something entirely unexpected).


(Sometimes, though, presidents just run out of gas long before their second terms are finished — having already used their first terms to present their best legislative ideas.)

In my lifetime, Obama is the fifth president to be re–elected, and the first four were stymied by serious problems in their second terms.

George W. Bush proclaimed on election night that he had "earned political capital" in the campaign that he intended to spend — and then the president who couldn't think of a single thing he would do differently in his first term got sidetracked in his second by an increasingly unpopular war and the federal government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

Bill Clinton was impeached in his second term. No one had heard of Monica Lewinsky in November 1996.

Ronald Reagan's second–term agenda was derailed by the Iran–Contra scandal.

Richard Nixon resigned as Watergate blossomed from a "third–rate burglary" in his first term to a major scandal in his second.

It isn't a new phenomenon, either. For presidents who are re–elected, election night is frequently the high point of their second terms. It's mostly down hill from there.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term was bogged down by his attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court.

Woodrow Wilson was re–elected by the slimmest margin of any president until Obama's re–election this week, largely because he kept the United States out of the war that was being waged in Europe — but America wound up in World War I, anyway.

Dwight Eisenhower had a series of problems in his second term. The United States fell behind the Soviet Union in the space race. The infamous U–2 incident embarrassed him in the final year of his presidency and raised tensions between America and the Soviet Union. And his administration lost the services of his trusted chief of staff and several Cabinet officers.

But Eisenhower managed to keep the peace between the two nations, and his second term was also marked by federal enforcement of school desegregation in the South and a memorable farewell address to the nation in which he warned against "unwarranted influence ... by the military–industrial complex."

Obama will face numerous challenges in his second term — the looming fiscal cliff gets all the ink right now, but then it will be the implementation of Obamacare and the probability that both will plunge the United States into another recession, as well as hearings on the terrorist attack in Benghazi — and the time may well come when the president will regret not having made a friend or two on the other side of the legislative aisle.

Trying to make some legislative friends from across the aisle now just isn't likely to work, given the venomous nature of Obama's campaign attacks.

It's a two–way street, though. Obama's short–lived filibuster–proof majority in the Senate is long gone and, most likely, won't be coming back since Democrats must defend 20 seats in the 2014 midterms. Few if any of the Republican–held seats look like they could be in jeopardy (right now, at least), but the Democrats must defend senators from Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and South Dakota — among others.

But congressional Republicans, who famously said their top objective was to make Obama a one–termer, must reconcile themselves to the fact that, like Bush and Clinton before him, Obama has been re–elected, and it will be necessary now for both sides to work together in the best interest of the country.

That calls for skills that Obama has never really shown that he possesses, but that's the way the system is set up in this country. We have checks and balances built in to the system to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful, and we have regular elections so voters can at least feel as if they have some power over what happens — even if they don't have nearly as much power as they might like to think they do.

When Clinton was president, and he was forced to deal with a Republican Congress, he gravitated to the political center and worked out deals with members of the Republican majorities.

For the first two years of his second term, Obama must work with a Republican House (and cajole enough Senate Republicans to prevent filibusters from happening) to get things done.

That's going to be tricky. But it must be done. The alternative is a recession, if not a depression, with massive job losses.

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