Don't expect much — good or bad — from Obama's second term

Fiscal issues will dominate the discussion, even if the president avoids the mistakes of his recent two-term predecessors

January 22, 2013|Thomas F. Schaller

A week after he won re-election, President Barack Obama said he was more than familiar with what the "literature" — the very use of the term cheered academics like me — says about re-elected presidents who over-reach during their second terms. They fail.

Mr. Obama's second term began this week, following a first term defined by emergency challenges (largely economic) unlike those faced by almost any incoming American president. Theoretically, his second term ought to be easier.

Of course, ought to be isn't the same as will be. One need not read the presidential literature to recognize the problems that plagued Mr. Obama's recent two-term predecessors — and that may catch up with him, too.

After winning 49 of 50 states during his 1972 re-election, in his second term Richard Nixon was forced to resign in the face of pending impeachment. The Democrats capitalized in 1974, electing one of the biggest new congressional classes ever. In 1984, Ronald Reagan also cruised to a 49-state landslide re-election victory. Halfway through his second term, Mr. Reagan got wrapped around the axle of the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1986, the Republicans lost the Senate they had won in 1980.

Bill Clinton and the Democrats actually had a good, "six-year-itch" midterm in 1998, following Mr. Clinton's escape from his second-term impeachment for perjury during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But the damage done ultimately paved the way for George W. Bush's successful "restore honor and integrity" 2000 White House run. And then came Mr. Bush's disastrous second term, which began with a failed bid to privatize Social Security and effectively ended at the seven-month mark thanks to his administration's utterly incompetent Hurricane Katrina response. The Texan left office with approval ratings in the low 30s.

Mr. Obama won't have a costly war to prosecute and defend — and withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan should prove as popular with voters, even most Republicans, as ending the Iraq war was. (Mitt Romney supported a similar timetable for withdrawal.) There are no hints of any lurking personal scandals. And although a few isolated Republicans in Congress are already calling for the president's impeachment because of his executive actions to stem gun violence, there will be no second-term impeachment.

So what troubles may await President Obama in the four years ahead?

Barring unforeseen foreign complications as the Arab Spring turns to summer and fall, domestic fiscal issues will dominate Mr. Obama's second term. The fights with House Republicans over deficits and debts may be less severe than previously; the GOP seems more contrite following the 2012 elections and has already passed legislation to delay the next debt ceiling fight.

Yet there remains a glaring, obvious asymmetry for Republicans to exploit. Mr. Obama's lowest first-term approval ratings came during the August 2011 debt ceiling fight. Public approval of Congress and the Republicans also fell. But strapping a fiscal grenade to their chests and blowing up the White House along with themselves worked for the House GOP. Had Mr. Obama stood for election in November 2011, he almost certainly would have lost.

Indeed, despite low approval ratings for Congress and the fact that House Republicans garnered fewer votes nationally in 2012 than Democrats did, House Speaker John Boehner maintained his Republican majority. Because House Republicans are unlikely to lose that gerrymander-bolstered majority in 2014, no matter how ugly the squabbling gets on Capitol Hill during the next two years, there's almost no incentive for Republicans, even with their dismal approval ratings, to work with Mr. Obama during his second term.

Presuming he avoids over-reaching on assault weapons or immigration reform — or unless the president makes a major push on climate change, as he hinted in his inaugural address Monday — Mr. Obama's second-term success or failure will be largely defined by how he handles these fiscal battles with Capitol Hill Republicans.

So expect the next four years from "no drama Obama" to feature a steady diet of fiscal fighting interrupted by the occasional international episode. In short, buckle up for what could be the most uneventful second-term presidency in two generations.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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