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Magazine / ELECTION 2012: MOVING AHEAD

Obama at the Hinge of History

In a clash of visions for the future, the president prevailed. But to realize his goals, he’ll have to find a flexibility he hasn’t shown.

Victory: The Chicago crowd was large, but the nation's challenges loom larger.(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

photo of Major Garrett
November 8, 2012

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.

COMMON TOUCH

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.

Institutionalists both, Reid and Boehner, according to aides and K Street observers, will now use their relationship, which is closer than it appears, to offer Obama a path to resolving the most immediate fiscal-cliff issues: the expiring Bush tax rates, the defense sequester, the fate of the alternative minimum tax, Medicare reimbursements, and the debt ceiling. The timing points to a December resolution, and the most important indicator will be not the amount of public discourse but the comparative quiet. In the coming weeks, silence will say far more than bluster. Wanton displays of confrontation could move markets—and badly. Capital, real and political, is at stake.

MANDATE AND MYTH

So much of the early betting along the success-failure continuum turns on the slippery question of Obama’s mandate. It’s slippery because political scientists aren’t even sure it exists. Yale University political scientist Robert Dahl branded the “mandate” a pure myth in 1990 because presidents, even reelected ones, don’t possess all the power. And even presidents who boost their popular-vote total—such as Richard Nixon, who bested his 1968 vote by 15 million in 1972—can meet with self-inflicted disaster. Ronald Reagan (whose reelection vote increased by 11 million) and Bill Clinton (2.5 million) endured star-crossed and scandal-plagued second terms.

“The problem is that the mandate claim perversely gives the impression that the president is the symbol of the greater democratization and popular self-determination of the political system,” said Anthony Brunello, professor of political science at Eckerd College. “It is more accurate to say the reverse is true.” A case study: George W. Bush, who in 2004 surpassed his first-term popular vote by 12 million and put his “mandate” to use in pursuit of Social Security privatization/personalization to disastrous effect. In other words, mandates are what presidents make of them, not what voters serve up.

Obama has proven the durability of his polyglot coalition and routed for all time the last vestiges of the national GOP opposition that is disproportionately older and whiter than the rest of the country. But the harsh reality is that Obama’s reelection, impressive in light of the nation’s troubled economy, rested on about 9 million fewer votes than his 2008 total. That’s the biggest vote contraction for a reelected president in American history.

“I don’t think Republicans think Obama won on any type of a mandate,” said Scott Reed, manager of Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign. “He won based on tearing down Mitt Romney.”

Obama has a durable coalition and an undisputed knack for mobilization. He is a campaign innovator and organizer of the first order. But to succeed on his own checklist of second-term pursuits—immigration, tax reform, deficit reduction, and climate change—he will have to do more with the institutional powers of the presidency in conflict with the legislative powers wielded by a Republican House.

The conundrum for Obama is that if he is to succeed, he must decide whether to use his reelection’s apparent endorsement of progressivism as a safe harbor of inactivity or dilute it, to the consternation of his base, and give some ground on the scope and generosity of the entitlement state, the strangling cords of debt, and the inefficiency of the tax code. Democrats sense an Obama desire to shape-shift, but no one is quite sure. That means that the biggest tell in the poker game of all poker games will be found in the lame-duck resolution, or irresolution, of the fiscal cliff.

The president will have to summon his coalition to face hard realities and fateful choices, not all of them comforting, on the questions of aligning what government can do, what taxpayers can finance, and how the books all come into better balance.

And that won’t be easy.

“A mandate, especially in the second term, is limited,” Democratic strategist Steve McMahon said. “That’s when popularity is in the high 40s and low 50s, instead of the high 50s and low 60s that come with the first term.”

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Obama can and will press for immigration reform, and he may get nearly as much as President George W. Bush sought—maybe more, if Republicans shift their sights to their party’s huge demographic hole that the 2012 election starkly revealed among Hispanics. Obama can wrap his arms around the task of reforming the byzantine tax code and, along the way, spike the political football after having won the fight over higher taxes on the wealthy (he did, and so did Senate Democratic victors in Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin). But he will have to face the hard reality that higher taxes on the wealthy (even at a $250,000 threshold that may give way to $500,000 or $1 million in congressional negotiations) won’t come close to solving the nation’s deficit and debt ills. The greatest deficit-cutting mechanism is a vibrant economy (see Clinton-era growth, arithmetic). And no matter how much or how little Obama moves the hinge of history, his party will not be able four years hence to blame Bush the younger for economic underperformance.

The economy is now squarely Obama’s, and managing the full implementation of the health care and financial-reform laws will be daunting. Both have profound and as-yet-unfelt tax and regulatory implications. “Implementing is just as important as legislating,” said Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden. “I believe a big part of Obama’s second term is implementing the Affordable Care Act and financial reform.”

On top of the immediate tasks of raising the debt ceiling and shielding the military from tens of billions in annual across-the-board spending cuts, Obama must also reevaluate his West Wing staff and Cabinet. Alienated voices in the big-business community will sift every move for signs of symbolic or real rapprochement.

If he wants a legacy of taming the debt crisis, Obama must turn a searching eye toward long-term entitlement savings. That will require the legislative dexterity and muscle to tell his party bad news and to settle differences with Republicans.

Obama must see differently and act differently to exploit the ever-shrinking window of opportunity afforded to a reelected president. He must look to the levers of power he knows so well and shift them into new and unfamiliar gears—ones that harness and seek to synchronize government action with a GOP opposition that rose against him in 2010 and that, although diminished slightly in numbers and clout, remains a consequential power center.

Obama must accept the election verdicts of 2008, 2010, and 2012, different though they are. He won a modern-day landslide in 2008 and saw a national repudiation in 2010. He clawed back to reelection but with a popular-vote margin that shrank considerably and conspicuously. Comprehending the supple and subtle signals of reelection is a particular burden. It could also be among Obama’s greatest tools to change his presidency and move the hinge of history, to coin a familiar word, forward.

This article appeared in print as "The Hinge Of History."

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