Earlier this year, a hot mic caught an unfortunate bit of candor when President Obama told former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that once safely re-elected he would have the “flexibility” to please the Kremlin better than he could before November. That confession alerted wavering independents that what they hear on the campaign trail from the president might bear very little resemblance to the policies that a second Obama administration would implement. That is especially true when it comes to foreign policy where the election year Jewish charm policy vis-à-vis Israel has been such a departure from the first three years of his administration.
But however great the contrast may be between what the president is promising and what he plans on delivering, that might be nothing when compared to the difference between what he thinks a second term will be like and the actual experience. Right now, with Mitt Romney continuing to rise in the polls and the Democrats showing weakness around the country, the only thing the president seems to be thinking of is the necessity to do or say anything he needs to in order to beat the Republicans. Setbacks, such as the jobs numbers, and scandals, such as the fallout from the Fast and Furious investigation and the probe into the administration’s press leaks about cyber warfare and other secret matters seem to be merely obstacles to the all-consuming task of securing 270 Electoral College votes. To the extent that they rivet his attention, it is only to the extent of figuring out how to damp down the controversy until after the election.
But these scandals should serve as a reminder to the president that even if he is able to win this year, the following four years may turn out to be an unremitting hell.
It is a rule of politics that second terms tend to be unhappy times for even the most popular of presidents. While presidents may think that they will be free of constraints once the burden of the need to think about re-election is lifted from their shoulders, in many cases the opposite is true. Though a re-elected president has great power, the extra four years is often spent playing defense as Congress, the press and the public begin sifting through the mistakes and scandals. No matter how great the hopes that may have been engendered by his initial campaign, even Barack Obama is subject to the laws of political gravity.
That is why the probes of Fast and Furious and the security leaks are not merely damaging in of themselves but serve as a preview of what a second Obama administration will look like. Right now, the president may think that by stalling Congress with spurious claims of executive privilege he can avoid the consequences of the Justice Department’s misconduct during the course of the Mexican gun running scam. He may also believe that the senior staffers who were undoubtedly guilty of spilling the beans about cyber warfare research and other sensitive matters relating to the confrontation with Iran will be able to prevaricate long enough so as to avoid any political consequences from these transgressions.
But he is kidding himself if he believes victory in November will make these problems go away. The investigations of these and perhaps other transgressions will only gather steam.
So long as either the Senate or the House of Representatives remain in the hands of the Republicans, the Obama White House will be under siege in the next four years as the scandal probes intensify. And if, as is very possible, the GOP will run both, he will not only find his legislative initiatives dead on arrival, but also be forced to watch as the trail of evidence on these scandals leads perilously close to the Oval Office.
Though we only tend to speak of presidents being lame ducks in their last year in office, it is a rare second term that does not expose the arrogance of power that tends to attach itself to many who work in the White House. President Obama was relatively lucky throughout most of his first term in that he and his top staff managed to avoid being mired in scandals even as they picked policy fights that often proved to be losers. But it is likely that Fast and Furious and the leaks will be only the beginning of a series of second term problems that will pick off senior administration figures and even further taint this administration’s reputation. Victory in November will be just the start of his problems, not their solution.