Back in 2007, John Fortier and I did a book called Second-Term Blues on how George W. Bush had governed after his reelection. John and I started with an essay on the usual characteristics of second-term presidencies, and measured Bush against them. This is a good time to do the same with Barack Obama.
We identified a set of characteristics that defined presidents reelected to a second term from FDR on. Let’s look at them.
Hubris. Every second-term president views reelection as a mandate for his policies and priorities, a vindication of the first term, and a rebuke to the president’s critics. Many overreach, as Franklin Roosevelt did with his plan to “pack” the Supreme Court, and Bush did with his attempt to privatize Social Security.
What about Obama? As the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win election and reelection with at least 51 percent of the popular vote, he had reason to feel vindicated. No question, he started his second term with high expectations that the unrelenting and blanket opposition to every one of his initiatives by Republicans in Congress would abate enough, at least in the Senate, to give him chances to enact major new policy initiatives on guns, immigration, energy, and infrastructure, while also moving toward at least a mini-Grand Bargain on fiscal matters. The path seemed to be through bipartisan coalitions in the Senate, forcing action in the House. To get there, Obama did not take a “my-way-or-the-highway” approach.
But it did not take long before it became clear that the underlying pathology in contemporary American politics had not abated. The failure of the background-check bill to get 60 votes in the Senate was followed by Republican cosponsor Pat Toomey saying that many of his colleagues voted against it because the president was for it. Tellingly, Obama did not overreach on the gun bill; he did not demand an assault-weapons ban or a limitation on magazines. But a more humble approach made no difference.
How has Obama responded? One way is to be more aggressive at reaching out to the public, traveling across the country to make his case. But except on the gun issue, he has not overpromised on his capacity to move the public to demand action that will pay off; he knows that most Republicans in the House and Senate are either immune from those pleas or more concerned with narrow slivers of right-wing activists than the public as a whole. Another has been to use executive orders and executive actions. But contrary to the screams of those “unitary executive” proponents who championed aggressive executive unilateralism under Reagan and Bush, Obama has not gone outside the norm here.
Burnout. Fatigue is a universal in a second term, for a president and his staff. The job(s) are brutal in their hours and pressure. Inevitably, there is substantial turnover, in White House staff and Cabinet positions. We have seen ample evidence of this early in Obama’s second term, with the departure of his chief of staff, national security adviser, and other key White House officials, along with many Cabinet and sub-Cabinet figures. There will be more departures, and as time passes it gets more difficult to get the best and brightest to come into a lame-duck administration. The changes can bring fresh blood and perspective, but it can also result in dislocation and turmoil. The long delays in identifying replacements and vetting them for several of these posts, as well as the Senate shenanigans on confirmation that were ostensibly relieved by the informal deal on filibusters in July has made this a bit more rocky than usual.
Lack of new ideas. As we wrote six years ago, “If presidents have big ideas, they usually raise them in the first term. Sometimes they succeed. If they fail to implement their grandiose notions in the first term, it is rare that conditions will change to make it more likely that they will succeed in the second.” Obama had considerable success in the first term, with health reform and financial regulation, along with many substantive advances in the stimulus package. But there are some ideas that did not make it very far in the first term that are at least alive in the second, if not particularly healthy. One is the public/private Infrastructure Bank. Tax reform — the last big idea to make it through in a second term, in 1986 — could be back; while not an Obama initiative, it could be an Obama accomplishment. If there is an immigration law, and if background checks can be revived—both big ifs—there could still be impressive successes.
Scandal. Scandal is typical for second-term presidents, usually amplified because it is also typical to have at least one chamber controlled by the other party. The Obama administration was remarkably free of significant scandal in the first term. So far, we have had Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service, and the National Security Agency in the second. But the fact is, there is nothing significant tying the White House, much less the president, to any major wrongdoing (and scant evidence of any corruption or serious malfeasance overall, Darrell Issa notwithstanding).
Party infighting. Every second-term president has hassles from his party’s base. Expectations are high, and there is no longer the excuse of the need to run for reelection. Here, Obama has a slew of challenges, on environmental matters like the Keystone XL pipeline, on any concessions on Social Security or Medicare, on Guantanamo, the NSA, and civil liberties. Liberal Democrats are restive. But Obama may be helped, as Bill Clinton was, by the overreaching of a vitriolic and ardent opposition, including the renewal of birtherism, calls for impeachment, and even some overt racism.
Salvation abroad. Faced with hassles at home, especially in Congress, second-term presidents typically turn more of their attention to foreign affairs, but not always with success (see: Iran/Contra, Iraq war.) No doubt, Obama will focus considerable attention on foreign affairs, partly by design, partly out of necessity. The jury is very much out on whether he will be able to have notable successes or will basically engage in frequent and extended crisis management.
Midterm losses. The “six-year-itch” phenomenon means most second-term presidents face serious losses in seats in Congress in the midterm elections. The prime exception to that rule was Clinton, whose party gained seats in the House — largely because he had presided over massive losses in his first midterm. Obama is in a similar situation, but as in 1998, Democrats have little chance of winning back the House, unless the Republicans so overreach in opposition in coming months that there is a massive backlash. And there is a near certainty that Democrats will lose seats in the Senate, perhaps enough to return the chamber to the GOP. There will be a big drag on Obama’s ambitions in his final two years if the Senate does switch. And in the meantime, Obama has been hurt by the fact that the two top Republican leaders in the Senate are up next year, and have tilted sharply right in response to their own concerns about reelection.
What is the take-home value here? In many ways, Obama faces the same kinds of challenges that hit every second-term president. His opportunities to excel are there — but the combination of the typical and the added complication of rampant and intense tribalism make break-the-mold success an uphill battle.