Why Obama Is (Probably) Doomed to the Second-Term Blues

The president has avoided some of the common pitfalls of predecessors on the back nine. And the results? Hardly any difference at all.
Larry Downing/Reuters

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.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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