So what lessons might Obama borrow from his successful two-term predecessors to avoid being perceived as a lame duck? First, though he cannot succeed himself in 2016, he can designate a proxy to replace him—a loyal lieutenant willing to help his friends, smite his foes, and keep his secrets long after he leaves office. Reagan fared as well as he did in part because he had designated George H. W. Bush as his wingman, and in effect won a third term when Bush became “Bush 41.” By contrast, Eisenhower kept his vice president, Richard Nixon, at a distance. (When asked during the 1960 general election whether his administration had adopted any major ideas of Nixon’s, Ike replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”) The Lewinsky scandal drove a wedge between Clinton and his wingman, Al Gore. A successor—or the lack of one—can shape not just a president’s performance, but also his legacy. When George W. Bush’s time was up, his party tapped John McCain, a White House outsider whose relationship with the president was feisty and rivalrous.
Second, Obama should take advantage of his relative youth, which gives him a distinct edge over most of his predecessors: Until recently, most second-term presidents were well past their prime, both physically and mentally. At age 51, Obama can remain a potent political force even in retirement; he should exploit this fact to enhance his current clout. (Only Grant and Clinton were younger than Obama at the start of their second terms—and think of how Clinton has remained relevant in recent years.)
If he’s to beat the second-term curse, Obama will also need to go bold and big. Just as FDR’s New Deal programs and Reagan’s tax cuts won over whole generations of voters, Obama must find ways to entrench his own legacy—and in the process, his new base. Immigration reform, for example, could draw the kind of young, highly skilled workers who might be able to pay for Social Security benefits for retiring Baby Boomers. Election reform might restore the luster of American democracy—while making it easier for Democratic voters to cast ballots.
One caveat: big changes like these can’t succeed unless another big change comes early in term two—Senate filibuster reform. The signature accomplishment of Obama’s first term, Obamacare, crowded out other reforms because Senate Democrats had to scrape together 60 votes to avoid a filibuster, rather than the simple majority the Constitution requires for passage of a law. If Senate reformers can tame the filibuster early in Obama’s second term—and it appears that Democratic leaders are indeed serious about changing the Senate’s rules this January, using a party-line vote to limit the minority party’s power to slow or stop legislation—then the political picture will change dramatically.
Without filibuster reform, the 45 Republicans in the Senate can quietly block up-or-down votes, with the result being that individual senators from moderate states don’t have to visibly go on record voting against popular Obama agenda items. But if the filibuster were blunted, and only 51 senators’ votes were needed, many key bills would pass with or without the GOP, and some savvy Republicans would choose to swim with the larger electoral tide. Americans would begin to see Republicans and Democrats working together again in the Senate—and this could change dynamics in the House.
And if not, there’s always 2014. When it comes to midterm elections, lameness, handled deftly, can be a source of strength. In 2008, Obama ran as a uniter; had he campaigned aggressively against House Republicans in either 2010 or 2012, he might have tarnished his image, and imperiled his own reelection prospects. But this time around, there’s nothing to stop him from going after those who obstruct his agenda. Beware the lame duck: he can bite hard.
By then, in any case, most eyes will be turning to the 2016 campaign trail. Which brings us back to our first lesson—possibly the most important one: each previous tide-turning president was succeeded in the next presidential election by a handpicked ally. Like Reagan, Obama has a possible wingman in his vice president. Joe Biden could dutifully offer to replace him, thus safeguarding Obama’s power throughout his second term and beyond. But Obama has at least one other outstanding option: just as Jefferson handed presidential power to his talented secretary of state, James Madison, Obama could do the same with Hillary Clinton.
Ultimately, nothing succeeds like succession.