The president is as arrogant and ambitious as ever.
“I hope and intend to be an even better president in the second term than I was in the first,” Barack Obama announced on Wednesday. The provocative statement presumed something about his first term that his election-day margin of victory—lower than all but one reelected president in U.S. history—contradicts. Even better, huh? If the president’s adversaries had hoped for a fresh start in the wake of November 6’s status quo election, Wednesday’s press conference—the first since March—provided little to buttress their optimism. The president’s attack on moderate GOP Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain for criticizing UN ambassador Susan Rice, and insistence on $1.6 trillion in new taxes, suggests an emboldened president doubling down on his first term.
Meet the new Barack. Same as the old Barack. The arrogance, the imperious take-it-or-leave-it propositions, the feigned indignation that members of the opposing party would dare criticize his administration—it was all there at the rare press conference. And if the brickbat didn’t become an olive branch after his mid-term “shellacking,” the president’s combative performance before a pliant press shows that it’s certainly not going to do so in the wake of his triumph.
But it’s never the same the second time around. Presidents gleeful with reelection soon become glum with torpor, scandal, and worse. Monicagate resulted in President Clinton’s impeachment. Iran-Contra bogged down Ronald Reagan. Watergate stopped the Nixon presidency. Franklin Roosevelt’s initial reelection preceded a disastrous court-packing scheme and the economy dipping back into depression. And we all know how terribly Abraham Lincoln’s second term started—and ended.
Milton Friedman wrote a book, The Tyranny of the Status Quo, which tackled the question of political inertia. The Nobel Prize winner surmised that “a new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not seize the opportunity to act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity. Further changes come slowly or not at all, and counterattacks develop against the initial changes. The temporarily routed political forces regroup, and they tend to mobilize everyone who was adversely affected by the changes, while the proponents of the changes tend to relax after their initial victories.” In other words, get what you want done immediately or not at all.
Second-term presidents certainly have achieved foreign policy successes and stamped their imprint on the courts. But second-term legislative successes have rarely come through ultimatums and strong-arm tactics, particularly when the opposing party controls one half of Congress and the president increasingly gets seen as a lame duck. President Reagan’s simplification of the tax code in 1986 that closed loopholes and brought top rates down from 50 to 28 percent won passage through the sponsorship of Democrats Dick Gephardt in the House of Representatives and Bill Bradley in the Senate. Bill Clinton presiding over the first budget surpluses in three decades stemmed in large part from a Republican Congress’s refusal to support dramatic spending increases. It took the two parties, and the two political branches of government, to bring the budget to balance.
Truly ambitious programs without appeal to the opposition tend to fair poorly during second terms. George W. Bush, who believed his reelection granted him political “capital” to spend, tried doing so on an overhaul of Social Security that would have permitted more options for younger citizens. In a Congress more favorable to him that the current one is to President Obama, President Bush’s proposal was dead on arrival. Should Barack Obama proceed in as uncompromising a manner during his second term as he did during his first, he may find far fewer legislative victories. Presidential power tends to erode rather than strengthen over time.
Alas, history hasn’t always provided precedent for anticipating the political career of Barack Obama. He is just one of three presidents to arrive at the office directly from the Senate. The first black president’s signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, won passage outside of that six-to-nine month window that Friedman outlined. Obama became the first president since FDR reelected with unemployment above 7.5 percent and one of two presidential victors since the dawn of exit polling who won the White House but lost independents. As stock brokers remind, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.
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