The second-term curse belies Obama’s optimistic vision

Updated

Ted Rall
by Ted Rall
COMMENTARY

President Obama recently argued that his second term could put an end to the gridlock between the Democratic White House and Republican Congress, leading to some sort of grand bargain—or at least a deal—that would improve the crappy economy.

“What I’m offering the American people is a balanced approach that the majority agrees with, including a lot of Republicans,” he told the AP. “And for me to be able to say to the Republicans, the election is over; you no longer need to be focused on trying to beat me; what you need to be focused on and what you should have been focused on from the start is how do we advance the American economy. I’m prepared to make a whole range of compromises, some of which I get criticized from the Democratic Party on, in order to make progress.”   

Liberal commentators scoffed (though more in sorrow than in anger), pointing out that Republicans who blocked Obama’s slightly-left-of-Milton-Friedman agenda throughout his first term will not be more likely to compromise during his lame-duck second term. Furthermore, Obama is wrong about GOP tactics changing once he hits his constitutional term limit. Nasty—and effective—attack ads aside, it really isn’t personal for them. Republican strategists will work to defeat whoever wins the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 just as hard as they schemed to stymie Obama. Which is, of course, exactly what an opposition party should be expected to do.

I couldn’t help noticing two remarkable aspects to Obama’s statement.

First, it tacitly admits that he didn’t get much done on jobs, unemployment and the economy—the issue that has consistently ranked as the voters’ top concern the entire time he’s been president. This is a dangerous gambit. Blaming the other party for leaving a mess and for obstructionism has a poor record of electoral success, particularly on the economy. Fair or not, voters tend to hold sitting presidents responsible for the state of their wallets.

Second, it asks us to assume that a president’s second term is an opportunity. In fact, history suggests the opposite. The vast majority of the signature legislative and policy achievements by U.S. presidents occurred at the beginning of their first terms: FDR’s first 100 days, LBJ’s civil rights act and his war on poverty, Reagan’s partial dismantling of the aforementioned social safety net. Following 9/11, George W. Bush pushed through the Patriot Act, legalized torture, and a pair of ridiculous optional wars.

 

The record of non-achievement of second terms is so grim that you have to wonder why presidents ever run for reelection. Whether you look at Richard Nixon, who won a record 1972 landslide only to resign two years later, or Bill Clinton’s second term, when he was caught in the mire of the Travelgate and Monica Lewinsky scandals, or Ronald Reagan’s second term, which was dominated by Iran-Contra, it is hard to think a president who got much done during his second term. Look at George W. Bush’s round two: he wanted to privatize Social Security and expand the GOP into a permanent majority party; instead, his popularity sank like a stone.

Why do these guys want a do-over so badly?

Whether Obama is aware of presidential history or just blowing smoke, you shouldn’t expect much from a second term. If you’re voting for Obama simply to keep Romney out—to deny him a chance to get anything done—that’s fine. But don’t expect Obama to get a liberal agenda—assuming he ever wanted one—through Congress. That ship sailed after the 2010 midterm elections.

Or a grand bargain. That boat was never built.

There are a couple of things Obama could do to mitigate the second-term curse. He could take his case directly to the American people, asking the citizens to pressure the Republican-dominated Congress to push through popular agenda items like forcing banks to write down principal on homes that have lost value since the burst of the housing bubble, tax subsidies for college tuition, and extending benefits to the majority of unemployed Americans, who no longer receive any. Democrats have forgotten this approach. Obama has failed to rally his supporters. Bill Clinton, another man who put too much faith inside the Beltway, had the same failing.

Another way Obama and the Democrats could make the most of a second term would be to replicate what the Republicans did with Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America, in other words, to state a list of policies and new laws that voters would effectively be endorsing if Obama wins. After November, Democrats would then be able to argue that they have a direct mandate for their agenda.

Ted Rall is a columnist, cartoonist, author and independent war journalist. He is the winner of numerous awards and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His new book is The Book of Obama: How We Got From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt. 

Barack Obama

The second-term curse belies Obama's optimistic vision

Updated