WASHINGTON - It's called the "curse of the second term." American political commentators can go through each of the past two-term presidents and point to an unexpected phenomenon, a political error or some other trip wire set off in the second four-year stint in office.
All the occupants of the White House have experienced it, albeit to different degrees. Richard Nixon had Watergate, Ronald Reagan with the Iran-Contra arms scandal. For Bill Clinton, it was the Monica Lewinsky affair, for George W. Bush, Hurricane Katrina...
Without going all the way back to Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated less than two months after his second inauguration, historians also point to Woodrow Wilson, who was partially paralyzed by a stroke following an arduous tour he made to try and “sell” the Covenant of the League of Nations. Or Franklin Roosevelt, who overreached by trying to stack the Supreme Court in his favor.
How might Barack Obama be threatened by the “curse?” Until now, the 44th president has escaped scandal. His administration succeeded in distributing stimulus money amounting to over $700 billion without any major incidents of corruption. No sex scandals have tainted the White House; there has been no national humiliation comparable to the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979-80. Obama’s clean record is due to luck, say some pundits, but probably even more to the fact that he keeps close tabs on all decisions.
After November's election, Obama said that he was aware of what’s been written about presidents in their second term. He has also repeatedly said that there is more work to be done, and urged Americans to get involved.
Now that he is free of election worries, those who have supported him -- unionists, Latinos, anti-gun militants, those fighting poverty and others – are expecting results. Defenders of the environment are already camped outside the White House to try and prevent him from softening his stance – as some think he might -- on a decision regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, which was delayed until after the elections.
Butter and guns
Expectations are only a little less immoderate than they were in January 2009. Is there any less risk of disappointment? As is the tradition, Obama will use his January 21 inaugural address to present his vision for the United States over the next four years. He has yet to provide a detailed plan of action, any more than he did during the campaign. Many posts in the new administration remain unfilled, much less confirmed by the Senate. In fact, all the President has done so far is outline several broad themes in interviews he gave at the end of last year.
Despite fiscal issues, immigration was to be the first thing on the agenda but was supplanted by gun control after the Newtown (Connecticut) killings in December. But while immigration might see some bipartisan consensus, the President knows the risks in challenging the gun lobby.
Other issues on the President’s list include energy and modernizing the country’s infrastructure as well as some less expected matters like reforming the criminal justice system. In the interest of cutting government spending, Obama wants to reduce the huge U.S. prison population – the highest national rate of any developed country.
Asked to look ahead to 2016, Obama says he wants to leave office having brought about a return to fundamental values – like the idea that you can “make it” in America if you work hard – even as he has put the country on a path that embraces its demographic, technological and cultural changes.
So much for his intentions. But can Obama achieve anything at all in the political configuration of cohabitation that has followed him into his second term -- even if Democrats consolidated their majority in the Senate (they now will have 55 seats compared to 51 before November) and reduced the number of Republican seats in the House of Representatives from 242 to 233? Everything depends on the power dynamics the President manages with the divided Republican camp.
The first quarter will, in any case, be taken up with three fiscal issues -- at the end of February: the debt ceiling, presently at $16.4 trillion; March 1, the sequester -- $110 billion in spending cuts to military and domestic programs; at the end of March, the extension of the continuing resolution necessary because of the unresolved U.S. budget. The present continuing resolution ends on March 27. This is the fight the Republicans intend to concentrate on. A number of them are looking forward to “shutting down” the government, which they believe is far too big in the first place.
Bringing people together around the issues – across ideological, generational and economic lines -- is the big challenge Obama faces. It will be one of his toughest missions. The America of the post-November 2012 elections is a country in demographic transition, uncertain of its model. It hasn’t moved further to the left, but it is more divided: more progressive in the Democratic states but no less die-hard in its conservatism elsewhere.
While not having a demographic advantage, many conservative states nevertheless continue to carry disproportionate clout because of the constitutional system of checks and balances which -- via the Electoral College -- aims to give states with small populations more of a weight in presidential elections. That isn't a curse, it's the Constitution.