Second-Term Blues

Rampant tribalism makes rocky path faced by all reelected presidents even rougher for Obama

President Barack Obama walks from Marine One to the Oval Office as he arrives at the White House, Thursday, July 25, 2013, in Washington, after speaking in Jacksonville, Fla., about his vision for rebuilding the economy.
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Norm Ornstein
Aug. 14, 2013, 3:46 p.m.

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.


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