Will Obama’s second term be better?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 2, 2012


Although the election will not be decided until polling booths close in battleground states on November 6, the growing Obama lead is turning the attention away from the name of the next president to the government priorities in the next four years.  In his likely second term, President Obama will find more difficult economic challenges, the mood in Washington will continue to worsen, public opinion will be less patient and Obama will be increasingly more concerned with his long term legacy than with the short term political maneuvering he will need to achieve success in his second term.


Few Americans presidents have been more successful in their second than in their first term. The polarized mood prevalent in Washington will make it difficult to forge bipartisan compromise. Though Democrats will likely retain control of the Senate, Republicans will continue to control the House of Representatives.  Unless the electoral tide strongly turns against Republicans in the coming weeks, the present Republican leadership in the House will retain control. With nothing to lose, Republicans will adopt even firmer positions against tax increases and will push for draconian social programs spending cuts.  The word compromise will be totally absent in Washington during the first year of Obama’s second term. 


An electoral defeat for Mitt Romney will trigger a power play in the Republican Party, with vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan leading the effort to move the party further to the right. Other presidential hopefuls will attempt to build a more pragmatic and moderate platform away from Washington. But in the nation’s capital, the more conservative wing of the Republican Party will continue to be the dominant voice.  Republicans will hope for a lower turnout in the 2014 midterm elections and thus will increasingly rely on the conservative party faithful to give them a new electoral victory.


In running his re-election campaign, Obama has focused on the need for continuity on economic policies.  By asking Americans to give him more time to show results, Obama tried to respond to the “are you better off today than four years ago?” question. Inadvertently, he also set out a policy plan that will be about continuity more than about change.  If he wins, he will continue pushing for the same priorities he had in his first term.


The fact that Obama does not have a distinctive agenda for the next four years will make it easier for presidential hopefuls in the Democratic Party to raise their own issues and influence the political agenda. Since he does not have a political protégée, President Obama will not get actively involved in the race for the Democratic nomination in 2014.   That will leave an open field for likely contenders to move fast to gain name recognition and start building alliances and support bases for their own presidential ambitions.


As it normally happens with second-term presidents, a number of key cabinet appointees will leave. Their replacements will serve as an indication of the president’s priorities, commitments and political concessions.  If the appointments are not carefully made, confirmation scandals will capture the political scene in the first months of the second term.


When he cruised to re-election in 2004, President Bush declared that he had “earned political capital and now I plan to spend it.”  However, his initiatives to reform social security miserably failed. Appointment scandals—including the failed appointment of former White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court—and the mishandling of the response after Hurricane Katrina soon depleted Bush’s political capital and the Democrats scored a huge victory in the 2006 midterm elections. Bush was soon rendered an early lame duck president.


If he does win re-election, President Obama will probably be less ambitious—at least in his public statements.  Obama will work to secure the implementation of his health reform—dubbed Obamacare by his opponents—and will continue pushing for initiatives to foster employment by funding public works and investments in infrastructure and education.  However, Obama will have little space to maneuver given the urgent needs to reach an agreement that will set a plan for a balanced budget. Obama will push for tax increases on the wealthy—though he will probably have to settle for more extended tax increases—and will have to accept important spending cuts on key social programs.  The president’s ability to bargain with Congress will depend on the magnitude of his re-election victory. For that reason, Obama will continue to actively campaign until the last day to help democrats reduce the Republican majority in the House. 


The sweetest moment in Obama’s likely second term will be election night.  After that, it will mostly be downhill for the first African American president of the United States. Even if he wins by a big margin, Obama will not be able to pass his legislation initiatives through a hostile Congress. Moreover, even within his Democratic party, 2016 presidential hopefuls will quickly start to make their moves and divert attention away from the White House.