Obama’s Second Term: Less ambitious, higher approval

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 30, 2013


Obama’s second term is moving forward more smoothly than his first term.   Because the President has embraced reforms that enjoy bipartisan support and as he scored partial victories against Republicans over tax increases spending cuts, Obama is also taking advantage of the fact that people have much lower expectations now than 4 years ago.  If Obama manages to broker a bipartisan agreement to pass immigration reform later this year, his second term might end up having a transformational legacy far less controversial than Obamacare in his first term.


It has long been argued that Presidents lose much of their power when re-elected for a second term. As they need to shuffle their cabinet and presidential hopefuls within his party begin to test the waters for the next campaign, second-term presidents become increasingly marginalized and isolated. Because it takes time for them to regroup after a hard-fought campaign, second-term presidents lose precious time appeasing factions within their parties. 


Occasionally, emboldened by their victory, second-term presidents attempt to push aggressive political agendas to build their legacies. However, as their power inevitably declines, they accomplish less than the expectations they raised.  President George W. Bush sought to introduce a revolutionary reform to social security, opening a way toward privatization. Immediately after the election, Bush declared that his victory had earned him political capital and that he planned to spend it in pushing through a social security reform. Miscalculations about how much actual power he had—and the inevitable unforced errors made by any administration—frustrated Bush’s plans. As a result, Bush quickly became a lame duck President even before the 2006 midterm election.


President Obama started his second term with fewer ambitions than in January of 2009. Because of negotiations made with Republicans right before the last presidential campaign, Obama had to face two complicated battles right after his re-election victory in November. Obama successfully cornered Republicans into acquiescing to a tax increase for high income Americans. The expiration of the Bush tax cuts on December 31st, 2012, gave Obama the upper hand to force Republicans to agree to a tax hike for the top in exchange for extending lower income tax rates for the rest of Americans.


In the fight over sequestration—with draconian mandatory spending cuts in social programs and defense—the Republicans did not balk. As a result, Obama was forced to begin implementing spending cuts that have already begun taking effect in different sectors. Since some cuts are affecting popular programs—and many have hit essential government functions, like air traffic controllers and airport security—Congress has already signaled its willingness to provide additional funds to avoid cuts in several key agencies. So, even though many programs that serve the poor will suffer, several spending cuts will be eventually reversed or significantly reduced.  The sequestration also forced cuts in defense. Though Congress is also likely to reinstate some of those funds, savings from the defense budget will make far less difficult for the White House and Congress to agree on a roadmap for a balanced budget by the end of the decade and on a plan to restore fiscal health.


Republicans are largely responsible for Obama’s partial success in the first 100 days of his second term. After forcing Republican presidential candidates to embrace extreme conservative positions in the primaries last year, the self-defined Republican wing of the Republican Party made it impossible for Mitt Romney to embrace moderate positions for the presidential election campaign. That allowed Obama to easily win re-election despite his low presidential approval and harsh economic conditions. After their defeat in November, conservative Republicans have refused to learn the lesson. Rather than facilitate the adoption of a more moderate platform, conservative Republicans—the old Tea Party wing—have insisted on the notion that Romney lost the election for not being conservative enough.  As the Republican Party refuses to adopt moderate positions, Obama emerges as the sole national leader who is not captured by a polarized extreme. To be sure, a few Republican leaders—including some who have championed a compromise on immigration reform—have made efforts to adopt moderate positions.  But the criticisms already voiced against moderates from within the Republican Party signal a tough road ahead for those interested in challenging the lead the Democratic Party enjoys among moderate voters.


President Obama is enjoying reasonably high support in polls. His approval stands at 50%, two points below what he had immediately after the Boston bombings and two above what he had right before sequestration kicked on March 1st.  With higher approval among younger people and women, Obama continues to consolidate his support among key demographic groups. The slow but certain economic recovery will continue to push Obama’s approval higher.  As democrats feel emboldened, expectations will rise about their chances in the midterm election of November 2014. Moreover, as Republicans continue to struggle between those who want to cater to moderates and those who want to push the party to the right, moderate Democrats will rally behind Obama’s good run and will consolidate their lead among centrist voters.