What History Suggests A Second Obama Term Might Look Like

The always interesting Ryan Lizza wrote a piece in the New Yorker three weeks ago speculating about what an Obama second term might look like.  Understandably, Lizza focuses on the policy initiatives that Obama might pursue in a second term, such as climate change legislation and restrictions on nuclear proliferation. As he notes, however, the window of opportunity for enacting significant legislation in the second term is quite limited; during the post-Herbert Hoover era, the president’s party loses about 30 House and seven Senate seats in the second-term midterm elections on average, and thereafter as lame duck status looms larger, the president’s influence wanes accordingly.   That means Obama’s best chance to achieve significant policy gain is likely to occur during the immediate 1 ½ years after reelection.

The second term, then, affords presidents one last but very limited opportunity to cement their historical legacy.  Toward this end, Lizza quotes Reagan aide Tom Korologos’ memo to the President on January 24, 1985, a few days after Reagan’s second inaugural, in which Korologos writes:  “It seems to me that the President needs to decide what his legacy is going to be… What is he going to be the most proud of when he’s sitting at the ranch with Nancy four and five years after his Presidency? Is it going to be an arms control agreement? Is it going to be a balanced budget? Is it going to be world-wide economic recovery? Is it going to be a combination of all of this: peace and prosperity? . . . Every speech; every appearance; every foreign trip; every congressional phone call and every act involving the President should be made with the long-range goal in mind.”

What Korogolos’ memo doesn’t say, however – and what Lizza does not directly address – is that the combination of a reduced window of opportunity to enact policy and political change combined with an overwhelming desire to enhance one’s presidential legacy can prove politically lethal.  The reason is that without the need to worry about reelection, presidents and their senior aides often demonstrate a reduced political sensitivity during their second term. This has two ramifications.  First, they tend to pursue major policies or political goals without fully grasping the political constraints that limit one’s ability to achieve those objectives.  Second, they are more prone to scandal rooted in the less savory aspects of presidential personalities.

On the policy side, George W. Bush conceded in his memoirs that his decision to pursue Social Security reform to start his second term was a mistake.  In his first press conference after winning reelection, Bush famously remarked, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”  For his first major policy purchase, he chose social security reform.  As he notes in his memoirs, “For someone asking to take on big issues, it didn’t get much bigger than reforming Social Security.”  Alas, legislation reforming Social Security went nowhere in Congress, stymied by a combination of Democratic opposition and tepid Republican support.  In retrospect, Bush lamented his decision to go big: “On Social Security, I may have misread the electoral mandate by pushing for an issue on which there had been little bipartisan agreement in the first place.”  Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but Bush believes now that he should have pushed for immigration, rather than Social Security, reform as his first major initiative of the second term because the former had bipartisan support.

Bush’s failure to reform Social Security is a reminder that the constraints governing presidential power are not rescinded in the second term – indeed, they loom even larger.  This was a lesson learned by Ronald Reagan, who shortly after reelection in 1984 signed onto a plan hatched by his CIA director and national security staff that, in effect, became an effort to trade arms for the release of Americans held hostage by Mideast terrorist groups – this despite his longstanding pledge to never negotiate with terrorists.  Reagan apparently broke that pledge after a meeting with the hostages’ families, who pleaded with him to do something to earn the hostages’ release, but he did so by convincing himself that he wasn’t really trading arms for hostages, since the initial arms shipments came from Israel, and it didn’t go directly to the groups holding the hostages.   When the details of that initiative and the other actions it spawned, including sending residuals from the arms sales to fund the Nicaraguan contras, finally came to light – as they inevitably had to – they triggered a public outcry that led to congressional hearings and a steep drop in public support for Reagan.  Again, while well-intentioned, Reagan’s decision to pursue the arms-for-hostage initiative betrayed a stunning loss of political sensitivity.

I could cite other second-term political missteps, including FDR’s infamous 1937 court-packing plan and his failed effort to purge conservative Democrats from power by intervening in the 1938 midterm races.  While it is true that FDR was eligible to run for a third term at this time, all indications are that he planned on abiding by the strong two-term tradition followed by almost all his predecessors. Eisenhower’s decision to authorize a U-2 flight over the Soviet Union, and his reaction when it was shot down in 1960 on the eve of a planned four-power summit including Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev might also fall in this category.

But second-term presidents are not just prone to policy missteps – history suggests that are also more vulnerable to political scandal rooted in their own personal peccadilloes.  Most recently, of course, Bill Clinton’s reckless personal behavior with Monica Lewinsky led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives – an event that left a permanent stain on his presidency (as well as on her blue dress!) Not coincidentally, I believe, their relationship began in November, 1985, after his reelection to a second term.  Again, it is hard to explain Clinton’s behavior beyond attributing it to a combination of recklessness and hubris.

Finally, there is Watergate.  Although the seeds of this scandal were planted in 1972, with the break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, Nixon’s effort to cover-up his initial knowledge of the break-in extended well into his second term.  Those efforts, when uncovered, forced him to step down as president in August, 1974 so as not to face almost certain impeachment and conviction on obstruction of justice charges. In engaging in an extensive cover-up, of course, Nixon’s obsession with secrecy and destroying his political enemies turned a third-rate burglary of little significance into perhaps the biggest presidential scandal of all.

We see, then, that each of the last four presidents to win reelection experienced either a major policy failure or political scandal during their second term.  This may be sheer coincidence.  But it may also be that in each case, a major contributing factor was a loss of political sensitivity.  Simply put, these presidents overestimated their own power, and underestimated the constraints limiting what they could reasonably expect to accomplish, or the penalties they would pay by operating outside those constraints.  I can’t be sure, but I believe a contributing factor in each of these missteps is that as second-term presidents, they no longer worried so much about the electoral ramifications of their actions.  Instead, in some cases their desire to enhance their legacy led to policy overreach.  In others, presidents acted on base impulses that were previously held in check by political considerations.

This is not to say that Obama’s second term will be inevitably scarred by policy overreach, or scandal, or both.  But any analysis of what to expect must acknowledge the historical record in this regard.   And that record is not pretty.  If Obama does win reelection, where might the equivalent overreach take place?  One precipitating issue might be the tax hikes and spending cuts now scheduled to kick in at the start of 2013.  If Obama decides this time not to cut a deal with Republicans, and instead to hold out for his fiscal preferences, the resulting deadlock could lead to a stiff increase in taxes and concomitant drop in federal spending that could trigger another economic recession.  Despite this possibility, Obama might be tempted to play hardball, reasoning that blame would fall on the Republicans and that this would be a major down payment on the budget deficit.  Soon after, in February 2013, the government may face another debt limit crisis, and another round of brinkmanship could occur.   On the other hand, Obama may again demonstrate the political pragmatism that has characterized his presidency to date and cut another deal with Republicans.  His choices in these matters will depend in no small part on how the 2012 election turns out, not just in terms of his margin of victory (which as of now appears likely to be quite narrow), but more importantly in how well Democrats do in the House and Senate.

No matter what the electoral results, however, Obama would do well to remember the history of past presidents who won a second term in office.  Victory does not lessen – never mind remove – the constitutional, institutional and political constraints that make the presidency such a weak office.  Indeed, as a second-term president, Obama is likely to wield less influence, and to have a shorter window with which to enact change, than he did during his first four years.


  1. The W. case of Social Security is especially interesting because they were aware of the so-called “second term curse” but though that it reflected presidents’ unwillingness to be as ambitious in round two as in round one. Whoops.

    Still, big things have happened in second terms, even with divided government (e.g., 1986 Tax Reform), and others have seen tantalizing glimmers of hope (e.g., Nixon/Kennedy and healthcare; Clinton/Gingrich and entitlement reform).

    So what would be cool, I think, would be to try and clarify what President Obama’s “opportunity” window looks like? Here are the variables I’d suggest most important, including some you identify as well…

    Congressional composition (divided government? ideological distribution?)
    Economic growth
    – this would boost the president’s approval
    – it would also improve budget estimates
    – it inoculates presidents against potential scandals
    Exogenous events (e.g., any sort of big, unexpected event – think Iran or the EU, terrorism, etc.)

    …and as for things Obama could control, I’d recommend…

    Focus on domestic issues where
    a. swing senators see the status quo as needing change (upcoming reauthorizations, for example)
    b. Republican leaders are invested more as policymakers than as partisans

    Stay willing to compromise

    Prioritize executive actions – nominations (including recess appointments!), regulations, foreign policy

    Notice, this is saying that much is out of the president’s control, and even on things he can control, there are still imposing constraints. Indeed, try to imagine an issue that swing senators find the status quo unacceptable and Republican leaders are not especially invested as partisans. Not easy to see, at least from over here in CA.

    Assuming an Obama second term comes with divided government (and slim margins in both chambers), then, I’d recommend the White House seek 1000 small successes than attempting a defining “legacy” project. In practice I’m thinking lots of nickle-and-dime deals, typically within annual budgets, rather than a “grand bargain.”

    This is more-or-less off the cuff, though it obviously builds from my work. What do you think, Matt? What am I missing? Where am I erring?

    Hope you are great.

  2. Matt,
    From where I sit, you aren’t missing much, particularly in your advice to, in effect, play small ball rather than pursuing a legacy project. Although if he does want a legacy project, I’d guess immigration reform would be it, although I’m not confident given Bush’s precedent that Obama could successfully play the middle against both ends of the partisan spectrum. One area we didn’t discuss was foreign policy – does he decide to intervene in Syria (assuming the conflict is still ongoing)? What about Iran? As you note, it is not without historical precedent to achieve some big ticket successes in the second term – tax reform under Reagan is a great example. But that had bipartisan support, at least as finally crafted. There just aren’t very many issues that seem ripe for bipartisan support, unless there’s a return effort at the “grand bargain” Boehner and Obama allegedly came close to striking.

    Lacking those big deals, I think you are right: smaller successes, like bending the cost curve on health care, setting up state exchanges, perhaps simplifying the tax code – these all seem better areas to exert some influence.

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