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Can Obama rescue his sputtering second term?

“It’s certainly not a stunning term,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton. “He’s been surviving, but this isn’t what he imagined."
President Barack Obama, on an overseas trip in Rome, Italy on March 27, 2014.
President Barack Obama, on an overseas trip in Rome, Italy on March 27, 2014.

Remember hope and change? Now there is only pessimism and gridlock – or at least that’s how President Obama’s dispiriting second term feels.

Fresh off his decisive re-election battle against Republican Mitt Romney, Obama vowed to pursue an ambitious laundry list of goals: stricter gun laws, meaningful immigration reform, universal pre-K, and raising the minimum wage.

So far, he's failed to achieve any of them.

Obama has acknowledged that immigration reform -- his biggest ticket item -- is effectively dead. Meanwhile, thousands of migrant children continue to stream across the border.

The administration is trying to get the Veterans Affairs department back on track after a scandal around long waits at veterans’ health centers forced out the department's secretary, Eric Shinseki. The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby birth control ruling was a blow to Obama’s signature healthcare plan. And when it comes to foreign policy, the commander-in-chief has been swamped by crises including the downing of a commercial jet in Ukraine, the deadly battle between Israel and Gaza, and a renewed insurgency in Iraq.

There’s no doubt Obama’s problems have been made worse by a gridlocked Congress and Republican lawmakers who have blocked him at every turn. But many Democrats still are frustrated by the lack of progress. And the president himself surely can't be thrilled with how the second term has gone so far, and seems resigned to spending the next couple years eking out minor wins.

“It’s certainly not a stunning term,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “He’s been surviving, but this isn’t what he imagined.”

Call it the curse of the second term. Presidents at this stage may not quite be lame ducks, but they do tend to see their larger ambitions foiled or face even bigger crises – Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate, Ronald Reagan was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, and Bill Clinton was impeached over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

And Obama’s challenges, while significant, bear no resemblance to the second term of the previous president, Republican George W. Bush, who presided over the fallout of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis that imploded the nation’s economy. 

Obama has indeed made some strides in 2013 and 2014, notably the rollout, albeit a rocky one, of the Affordable Care Act. More than 10 million people now have health insurance who didn't have it before. He's also pressing forward with plans to withdraw the last American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, and has used the power of his pen on a raft of other initiatives like broadening protections for LGBT federal contractors, deferring deportation for many young illegal immigrants, raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers, and pushing forward with new environmental regulations.

But it's not nearly what his supporters had hoped for from Obama, who once famously promised his presidency would be "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Adam Green, head of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Obama has struggled in laying out a clear, overall strategy.

“There’s a lot of people who want this president to succeed but don’t seem to see a cogent story coming out of the White House. What does success look like in the 2014 elections? What is the most defining issue of our day? I’m not sure the American people have any idea looking at the communication strategy of the White House,” he said.

According to the latest Gallup poll, Obama's overall job approval rating stood at just 39%. And a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey showed his handling of foreign policy hit a new low at 37%. More than half said Obama wasn’t capable of leading the country and getting the job done.

The president brushed off the poll, telling ABC News that Americans aren’t always going to back his foreign policy every second “because there are going to be times where the world is messy.” 

Supporters insist Obama’s biggest obstacle to success has been Republicans intent on thwarting his every move.

“I think that President Obama from the day he was inaugurated to this very moment has had to deal with an opposition party unlike any other president,” said Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “They have been determined to do whatever they can to derail the presidency to the detriment of the country.”

Added South Carolina’s Democratic chairman Jaimie Harrison, “The president has tried to accomplish a lot. But there’s a lot of gridlock in Washington and even in the states that are preventing it from trickling down and benefiting folks on the ground.”

In his state, deeply red South Carolina, Harrison noted that Republicans have blocked stimulus funds coming into the state and Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Still, Harrison, who served as a top aide to former House Majority Whip James Clyburn, said Obama hasn’t done enough to build relationships on Capitol Hill.

“I think that is something some presidents naturally have and some presidents have to work on. That’s an area I would say he needs to work on,” Harrison said. “You’ve got to know the members, you’ve got know spend some time and capital. Their appreciation increases and willingness to stick their neck out for you increases dramatically.”

The biggest test of Obama’s rocky second term will be how it affects the 2014 midterm elections. Republicans are making an aggressive play to recapture the Senate, hoping the president’s weak polling numbers imperil Democratic incumbents and challengers alike.

But Democratic strategist Joe Lestingi said Obama may be able to salvage the midterms because he can point to tangible accomplishments around health care and gay rights.

 “Compared to the inaction of Congress, he can say ‘look at what I did under the circumstances,’” Lestingi said.