Both presidential candidates spoke grandly and with evident passion about an epochal choice that voters held in their hands, about a hinge of American history where, in the next four years, intractable problems would be confronted, transformative decisions made, and a new path irreversibly set for an economically weakened and militarily exhausted nation.
Now that the polls are closed and the reckoning is nigh, President Obama does not have the comfort or convenience of shelving his campaign rhetoric. That talk about the big choice, about turning points, is actually true. Obama and the presidency’s vast institutional powers are the singular vessel in which the elixir of options can and will be mixed. He can now stir them anew, having run and won for the first time in his political life as something other than an insurgent. His last campaign is over. Now comes the bracing reality that his legacy-shaping window of opportunity is brief—about 20 months at the very most.
What becomes of a second Obama term in large part will be defined by what’s achieved before inaugural bunting is even hung. If the hinge is to swing toward new immigration policy, tax reform, entitlement-altered deficit reduction, and climate change, it must first turn by smaller degrees and address the looming fiscal cliff. These are efforts only the president can set in motion.
Along the way, the unexpected is sure to come. Supreme Court vacancies or international strife could arise at any moment. Appointing a liberal to succeed Justices Antonin Scalia or Anthony Kennedy would cement an even longer-lasting legacy for Obama. A deft navigation of the nuclear-Iran question might represent the sine qua non of post-9/11 legacy-building. It could all be there for the president.
But there are traps everywhere, and not just on Capitol Hill. CBS’s Bob Schieffer joked on Wednesday that second terms are usually defined principally by the number of administration figures hauled off to jail. Scandals do encroach; think Nixon (Watergate), Reagan (Iran-Contra), Clinton (Monica Lewinsky), and Bush (Scooter Libby). Entropy and over-the-horizon politicking to succeed the president also stalk a second term. Hence, the 20-month timeline.
The answer to entropy is activism, and the plate is overflowing with high-priority items. Senior administration officials contend that Obama is hungry to achieve bigger things and to move to the center—as he necessarily must—to achieve them. Senate Democrats appear receptive, and the ever-enlarging “Gang of Eight” may prove more fulcrum than fantasy when it comes to defining the doable. Obama appears motivated to try because incrementalism is his only legislative option and the only balm to raw partisan rancor. Failure not only shrinks a legacy; it could also inflict lasting damage.
But Obama’s initial task will be to settle frayed nerves. Wall Street greeted his reelection with the biggest sell-off of the year, a 300-plus drop motivated in part by fears of D.C. gridlock (as well as continuing nervousness about European economic contraction). For the first time in American history, the varied conduits of commerce, from powerful multinational conglomerates to regional corporations and down to our beloved mom-and-pop stores, fear that Washington gridlock could sentence them to a premeditated and politically induced recession that erases hard-won job gains, sends middle-income earnings plummeting, and deepens poverty.
Obama has to forge a compromise with Senate Democrats and House Republicans to avert at least some parts of the fiscal cliff and, for the moment, the gravity of Wall Street skittishness appears to have soaked in. Obama’s made no move to rub GOP noses in his victory.
House Speaker John Boehner read a conciliatory speech from a teleprompter (unheard of in Boehner Land) to make sure that every word and the soothing tone around it was right, including his almost-beseeching line to Obama: “We want you to lead.” Republicans are open to higher tax revenue in the context of tax reform, Boehner said, a small but perceptible crack in his party’s antitax doctrine, especially if the definition of tax reform takes on, as some GOP lobbyists and other Republicans expect, a taffy-like flexibility. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also sounded as if he was in a governing mood after nearly two years of organized inertia meant to shield Democrats from tough budget and spending votes.
Republicans, especially Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who told National Journal in October 2010 that his top goal was to make Obama a “one-term president,” now know that 2008 wasn’t a fluke. Obama now knows that the House GOP ascent in 2010 wasn’t either. This is new knowledge, forged on the anvil of the ballot box. “I think we’re going to see some significant potential change in activity in the first six months to a year,” said Carter Eskew, managing director of the Glover Park Group and chief strategist for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign.
Ron Fournier contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.