President Obama’s dwindling power

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 8, 2013


Two months after his re-election victory, President Obama has lost some of his political momentum.  The tough negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff showed Obama’s inability to emerge as a master deal maker. In the next few weeks, President Obama will seek to fill key cabinet posts.  If past behavior is an indication of future behavior, Obama will struggle to get his nominees approved by the Senate. If he wastes valuable time putting together his team for the second term, Obama will speed up the inevitable lame duck president syndrome.


There is disagreement on whether first or second term presidents are more effective in carrying out their agendas.  Some first term presidents are so concerned with re-election that they adopt moderate positions to lay the groundwork for their second terms when they hope to implement their most cherished policies. President George W. Bush candidly conveyed that view when, after his 2004 re-election victory, declared that he was going to spend his political capital in pushing for a social security reform. As it turned out, his political capital vanished rather quickly and by 2005—less than a year after his re-election—hurricane Katrina destroyed the rest of it. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were more successful in their second terms as they learned from their mistakes to build a strong and lasting legacy.


Others argue that the lame duck syndrome, which normally appears after the midterm election in the second term, actually begins earlier.  As with other age-related diseases, you can only delay its effects. Successful second term presidents manage to delay the start of their lame duck conditions by reducing the number of unforced errors, making a swift transition into their second terms—including the appointments of new cabinet ministers—and developing good working relations with Congress.  Presidents Reagan and Clinton were successful because they delayed their lame condition until after the midterm election in their second terms. When he raised expectations about what he was going to accomplish in his second term, President Bush inadvertently rushed the start of the lame duck syndrome as his agenda got into trouble in a Congress that was reluctant to undertake sweeping social security reform.


In both views, political success in second terms depends on the president’s ability to get an early start and achieve some early political and economic victories. A slow start in filling cabinet posts consumes valuable time when the opposition is disorganized. If the President makes controversial cabinet appointments, the opposition finds a good opportunity to regroup and can rally around an ideological issue that helps them put behind their recent electoral defeat. 


Because he had to face an unusual crisis—the negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff—President Obama did not have much time to prepare and strategize for his second term. Immediately after his re-election, Obama had to engage the outgoing Congress to broker a deal that would combine tax increases with spending cuts.  Because Republicans were so adamantly opposed to any tax increase and Democrats anticipated that mandatory spending cuts would not materialize—because they are unpopular even among Republican legislators—President Obama did not have much room to maneuver.  In the end, he was able to get Republicans to agree to a tax increase making few concessions in terms of spending cuts. 


However, Obama did make a big concession in the negotiations. Congress and the President agreed to delay the discussion on spending cuts for two months.  Negotiations on spending cuts will now be held precisely when President Obama will need to request from Congress an increase on the debt ceiling in late March.  Republicans expect to be in a strong position to obtain spending cuts concessions from Obama in exchange for the authorization to borrow more money to fund the government. Obama believes that popular pressure will force Republicans to agree to a debt ceiling increase without the need to make significant concessions on spending cuts.  Even if Obama is right and Republicans are wrong, the agreement to avert the fiscal cliff will cost Obama valuable time to advance his other priorities.


President Obama does not have that much time to waste.  His favorite candidate for Secretary of State, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, had to withdraw from consideration after a couple of weeks of heated debate over her possible appointment.  His nominee for the Department of Defense, former Republican senator Chuck Hagel, will probably face stiff opposition from Republicans in the Senate. Obama is also expected to appoint a new Secretary of the Treasury in the coming weeks. If he is still engaged in getting his appointees confirmed by the Senate when the negotiations over the debt ceiling being, Obama will have lost some of his most valuable time in preparing his team for his second term. Because his main concern should be delaying the start of his lame duck period, Obama should give the same priority to the amount of time involved in negotiating with Republicans as he does to the result of those negotiations.