It is no cliché to note that while all presidents ardently desire second terms, they are more often a curse than a blessing. Most of those who have been elected twice in the last century have seen their presidencies run aground for various reasons. George W. Bush had Katrina and the Iraq quagmire. Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. Ronald Reagan had Iran Contra. Richard Nixon had Watergate. Lyndon Johnson had Vietnam. Amid the pomp and hope of new beginnings of a second inauguration day always lurk the threat of unseen or dimly understood disasters that sink presidents who leave the presidency as wounded lame ducks worn down by the cares of office. That’s the challenge facing Barack Obama after being sworn in today for another four years in office.
The president’s opponents can comfort themselves after their shocking defeat last November with the thought that he will inevitably be capsized by the usual second term nightmares that have brought down his predecessors. But that is an assumption, not an argument. Throughout his career Obama has often defied the laws of political gravity and it is by no means impossible that he should do so again. If the economy actually begins a recovery or he is able to pass some kind of immigration reform or a gun control package and begin the process of reforming entitlements while avoiding foreign disasters, Obama could be that rare species of president who does not spend his second term explaining failures or scandals. That’s a tall order, but amid clear signs of future disaster, the president does have some factors that would argue in favor of his success.
The first of these is the power of his personality as well as the historic significance of his presidency. Republicans spent the first four years of the Obama administration underestimating the president’s personal appeal. Part of it is a likeability factor that still puzzles conservatives (including this writer). But they also forget that most Americans, including many of those who disagree with Obama’s policies, take pride in the idea that we have finally elected an African-American president and are wary of any attempt to treat him with the usual disdain that is accorded our chief executives. That the mainstream media has been more in his pocket than any president since John F. Kennedy is inarguable. The fact that this president has always been graded on a curve may frustrate his opponents but it can’t be ignored when assessing his prospects. No matter what happens in these next 48 months, the willingness of most Americans to think well of him is going to weigh in his favor.
Also to his advantage is the ruthlessly partisan approach he has taken to governance. Barack Obama may have entered the White House talking about being a post-partisan president but he has governed in a completely different manner. He is an outlier among our presidents when it comes to working his the opposition in that his goal has always appeared to be the demonization and marginalization of his Republican opponents. Few presidents have been as uninterested in bipartisan cooperation to pass legislation as he has been.
That has made it difficult for him to get anything from Congress after losing control of the House in the 2010 midterms in the backlash against ObamaCare and the stimulus boondoggle. But the zero-sum game he has embraced is well suited to the objective of portraying his foes as extremists with the assistance of his media cheerleaders. Though his demands for higher taxes are every bit as ideological in nature as the Tea Party’s opposition, only one side has been portrayed as outside the mainstream–and it isn’t Obama’s. The conversion of his re-election campaign apparatus into a permanent political operation whose purpose will be to attack Republicans during the next four years is a sign of the seriousness of purpose that Obama is demonstrating about winning political battles in the coming months and years. Though some of his predecessors were exhausted about the constant struggle or lost their taste for political combat after several years in office, no one should expect that to happen in the Obama White House.
Another plus for Obama is the current weakness and division among the ranks of Republicans. The House GOP has decided to put off another confrontation over the budget for a month, but unless they work together they will wind up being bested again, just as they were in 2011 in the first debt ceiling crisis and this past month over the fiscal cliff.
Of course, there are also good reasons to believe that the president will not skate through another four years unscathed by the burdens of office.
Second terms are usually a ripe environment for scandal and that factor is something that could bite the president if and when prosecutors unravel the case about security leaks from White House or other cases that have yet to get much publicity. But anyone that expects this administration to play by the rules and surrender meekly to a special prosecutor the way most others have hasn’t been paying attention the last four years.
This president is dependant on factors that neither he nor his opponents can control. The economy is the chief variable and should it go down rather than up in the next two years, then that is something that no amount of charm, media bias or historical significance can control. President Obama was fortunate that a bad economy did not sink further during his re-election year but in the coming months, as ObamaCare is about to be implemented, the effect of his signature legislative achievement could undermine any hopes for a stronger recovery.
Also looming over any presidency is the chance that foreign affairs will torpedo a second term. Objective historians will probably see his time in office as one during which U.S. influence in the world fell to new lows as he dozed while the Arab Spring turned longtime allies into Islamist strongholds. The looming conflict with Iran is just one possibility for disaster, but it is also one that Obama has courted during his first term as he wasted years on a foolish attempt to engage the ayatollahs and then feckless diplomacy that allowed Tehran to get closer to its goal of a nuclear weapon. The odds are that sometime during his second term he will be faced with the choice of allowing Iran to go nuclear or using force to stop it. The longer he waits, the higher the risks are that any intervention will be too late or too costly.
Yet above all, Obama will be, as any president is, a hostage to fortune. Napoleon used to ask if his officers were lucky before they received promotion. Though some may deny the existence of luck, Barack Obama is a man who has been fortune’s favorite throughout his career. Had an opponent’s messy divorce not become public, it is unlikely he would have ever been elected to the Senate. He was fortunate in facing two Republican opponents for the presidency who were both poor candidates, even if they were both good men. A hurricane hit the country at exactly the right moment to give his re-election a boost, and at a time when both the press and at least one self-interested Republican was more interested in letting him play commander-in-chief during a crisis than analyzing the failures of the government to help many Americans.
It may seem superficial to put all this down to luck, and there are other explanations for Barack Obama’s rise and re-election. There are many reasons why his ideological rigidity will undermine his second term or why his shortsighted approach to foreign affairs should lead to predictable disasters. It is more than likely that four years from now this country will be closer to insolvency with a weak economy and a worsened security situation abroad. But this is a president who has always gotten a pass from much of the media and much of the public for his mistakes and misjudgments. Anyone who bets that this will change in the next four years shouldn’t mortgage the house on the result.