Has Obama Stepped Into the Second-Term Trap?

Does Obama’s executive action on immigration demonstrate that he has fallen into the second-term trap that ensnared so many of his predecessors?

Two years ago, looking ahead to Obama’s reelection, I posted this piece warning about the “history of past presidents who won a second term in office.” The danger, I wrote then “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.” This was particularly true, I argued, because presidents who are freed from having to face the electorate often display a stunning lack of political sensitivity. At the same time, having successfully won reelection – often by large margins – they tend to overstate the degree to which voters have given them a mandate to pursue treasured policy objectives. As evidence, I cited examples including FDR’s court-packing scheme, Reagan’s Iran-contra affair and the second Bush’s effort to push social security reform. I might also have cited Nixon’s budget impoundments and, perhaps, Clinton’s sexual dalliance with Monica as well.

Today I have a piece up at U.S. News  that considers whether Obama’s decision to take executive action designed to defer deportation proceedings against up to five million undocumented immigrants, and to allow many of them to work legally, fits within this historical pattern of second-term overreach. My tentative conclusion – subject to correction by you, dear readers – is that Obama has needlessly jeopardized his political standing, but this does not necessarily mean he will suffer the same degree of political fallout that befell his presidential predecessors. Much depends on how Republicans respond to Obama’s misstep.

As I note in my U.S. News piece, my judgment is not based on the belief that Obama has overstepped his formal powers. Legitimate arguments regarding the legality of Obama’s executive action can be found on both sides of the legal issue. But those who assess Obama’s action solely on legal or constitutional grounds are missing the bigger picture – whether Obama suffers the fate of his predecessors will be determined by the political process, not a legal one. That is, ultimate judgment will be rendered by the public, as expressed through the actions of their elected representatives and as mediated by the press in all its variegated forms. That verdict will depend in part on how congressional Republicans respond. Their potential choices run the gamut from voting to censure the President, withholding funding from relevant agencies, or blocking confirmation of nominees to key positions such Attorney General, to cite some of the publicly-discussed options.

But the greater concern for Obama, I think, is the long-term impact of his immigration action on his relations with Congress and on political support for his presidency more generally. In the U.S. News piece, I raise this question: “If the President’s actions on immigration, as announced yesterday, essentially poisons his relations with Congress for the remaining two years of his presidency, thus foreclosing efforts to pass climate change legislation, or to address tax reform or entitlement programs – was it worth it?” The short answer, I think, is no – it will not be worth it. This is because, in my view, immigration was the one issue that had the potential for Obama and congressional Republicans to strike a bipartisan deal in no small part because Republicans had an electoral incentive to do something to shore up their support among Hispanics. In his memoirs, former president George W. Bush acknowledges that he should have pursued a bipartisan immigration bill first after his reelection, rather than opting for social security reform which was a much tougher bill to pass. By pursuing social security reform, Bush believes he further polarized an already divided Congress, making subsequent efforts to deal with immigration impossible. Such is my fear with Obama’s decision to go it alone via executive action – it needlessly inflames an already volatile situation, and at exactly the wrong moment: when Republicans are feeling their oats after coming off a convincing midterm victory. As House Speaker John Boehner made clear in his statement today, Republicans are going to retaliate for Obama’s actions with untold consequences for future relations between the two branches.

To be fair to Obama, it is always difficult to weigh uncertain long-term costs against clear and immediate short-term gains. There is an argument to be made, moreover, that Obama has put Republicans into a box because any effort by them to move against Obama on immigration risks alienating the growing bloc of Hispanic voters heading into the 2016 elections. But Obama could have just as easily accomplished that goal by forcing Republicans to negotiate a comprehensive legislative immigration fix, or else risk alienating Hispanics, and at less political cost. Moreover, as several critics have suggested, Obama’s action may set a dangerous precedent that future presidents, including Republicans, can cite to justify ignoring or changing law on their own.

For all these reasons, my initial reaction is that Obama has needlessly risked his already diminished political clout. If so, he would not be the first president to fall prey to the second-term combination of political hubris rooted in decreasing political sensitivity and a desire to burnish one’s political legacy. But the fact that previous presidents have made similar mistakes ought not to excuse Obama’s behavior. Instead, assuming my analysis is correct, it raises the question as to why he didn’t avoid following in their footsteps.


  1. Matt:

    The leadership in the House and Senate are acutely aware that they need to demonstrate that they can govern effectively.

    I suspect you will see calibrated changes but no shut downs, etc.; appointments will be few and carefully vetted; money will be doled out sparsely and they will still find a way to make the government function. If they do not, the geography of the Senate seats up in 2016 does not favor them.

    As I’ve said here before, Obama is about to find out that elections do have consequences.

  2. I typically find myself not only in agreement with your analysis, but in fact greatly enlightened by it. Actually, you have been so thoughtful about presidential politics in real time that contradicting you makes me wonder about my own sense of things.

    Those caveats noted, I have the opposite impression. That is to say, I’d argue President Obama has little-to-no chance of doing anything significant via legislative channels, so if I were advising him (laughable, I know), I’d say that he should push the limits of executive action. The reasons are policy changes tend to be “sticky” on their own, and even if they weren’t, the only way to bring congressional Republicans to the bargaining table is to force them to view the status quo as unacceptable. So my advice would be to make this the first of many such efforts – on climate change, on taxes, on healthcare, and on and on. In short, get the policy right and don’t overthink the rest.

    The reason I say this is that today’s rhetoric notwithstanding, Republicans will take things day-by-day, issue-by-issue. If a circumstance arises where Republicans have an incentive to cut a deal with President Obama privately rather than fight him publicly, they will. Such circumstances appear unlikely, but that is not because of the President’s actions on immigration; rather, it reflects the circumstances that forced him have to take them.

    All that said, I ask for permission to revise and extend my remarks based on yours. Ha.

    Matthew Beckmann

  3. Matthew,

    Only if I can revise and extend my remarks too! You make a good point – that the best way to see Obama’s action is as the first move in a bargaining game with Congress. Republicans are now faced with the choice of crying foul while Obama moves ahead with his immigration policy, or they can get their act together and pass more comprehensive legislation. More generally, I agree with your observation that Republicans will take issues one-by-one, cutting deals when it serves their interests, and otherwise obstructing. But the reason I was disappointed with Obama’s action is that I thought immigration was one of those areas where Republicans already had an incentive to deal (given their electoral concerns with the Hispanic community). So Obama needlessly inflamed Republicans in the one area where they might have worked with him. They may still deal, but not without unnecessary fuss and muss. But as you suggest I may have been too optimistic about this – after all, they had six years to cut an immigration deal already and nothing got done. It will be interesting to see how this plays out – I confess that between writing my US News piece, in which I was quite agnostic about Obama’s action, to writing my Presidential Power piece, I became more pessimistic regarding his decision to take executive action. That was a span of 4 hours, so clearly I’m open to having my mind changed again! And, as I note in both posts, my view regarding whether Obama’s move was reckless or not depends on how Republicans react. They sounded angry to me in their public comments, but maybe cooler heads will prevail.

  4. ““If the President’s actions on immigration, as announced yesterday, essentially poisons his relations with Congress for the remaining two years of his presidency…”

    Republicans in Congress have made it a point from the onset to avoid working with the president: At the very least, they saw the potential for Obama to transform the Democratic party at their expense and did not want to create the next FDR. So if it wasn’t immigration, then it would be something else.

    In particular, an immigration deal is impossible because the Tea Party caucus won’t stand for it. The 2014 midterm win was a nail in that coffin because it assured at least some Republicans that they don’t need Latino voters in order to win elections.

    Where the immigration order is potentially problematic is with the electorate. Americans are pocketbook voters: these grand gestures feed the nagging feeling that they are being addressed while the economy is being neglected. If Americans are still pessimistic in late 2016, then this immigration decision may produce blowback; if the mood is more upbeat, then it will probably will not have mattered.

  5. T,

    That’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it? Whether there was ever a chance for legislative action on immigration? I thought there was, because comprehensive immigration had the potential for bipartisan appeal, if the two sides could play the middle against their more ideologically extremists wings. But you may be right – I may have been unduly optimistic on this point. If so, then maybe Obama is correct in moving ahead, in the belief that he had nothing to lose. Nonetheless, I would have given the new Republican congressional majority a chance to prove they couldn’t govern before taking executive action.

  6. T.:

    Your analysis of the 2014 election results could be somewhat off.

    The leadership in the House will have more latitude, not less. Almost all of the new 12 plus or minus seats are from swing districts and as such are more moderate. Those votes will enable Boehner and McCarthy to have more latitude, not less.

    In the Senate, the 4 extra seats won (I am counting a win in Louisiana) will give Mitch more latitude dealing with Cruz, Paul, et alia.

    I see continued attempts by Republicans to govern civilly; no shut downs (twice burned) and a steady diet of clean bills on the POTUS desk. After all, the big enchilada is 2016, and that’s the real path.

    Keep your eye on McCarthy; he is the future; as such, his power grows daily.

  7. Shelly,

    Given your argument that the Republican electoral gains in 2014, by diluting the conservative wing’s influence, provides more latitude for Republican leadership to govern, do you think comprehensive immigration reform legislation was a possibility prior to Obama’s decision to strike out on his own? Is it still a possibility?

  8. I have to disagree that immigration reform presented much of an opportunity for the Democrats or for bipartisanship. Americans may express support for the idea generally in opinion polls, but the issue isn’t important enough to most voters to motivate them. They prioritize the economy, the economy and the economy, in that order, and they won’t see how this could help their families to be more prosperous.

    There is a base of Latinos and another base of fierce nativists who both really do care about it. But many of those Latinos don’t vote or are not loyal to the Democratic party, while the nativists are quite agitated and turnout in high numbers for the Republicans. The Latinos may have the numbers in total, but the antis have what it takes to win elections, at least during the midterms.

    If anything, pro-immigration policies present the opportunity to drive more white working class voters into the arms of the Republicans, while alienating black voters from turning out for the Democrats. That has the potential to move a few swing states toward the GOP in 2016, while the states in which the executive order would receive the most support would have voted Democratic anyway.

    I’m not quite sure why Obama did this, or why he chose to do it now. He has displayed a tendency of not concerning himself with the impact of his actions on his party, and this seems to be consistent with that lack of interest. He may have just seen this as a pragmatic decision that had to be made because Congress won’t bother; despite all of the rhetoric, his policy of triaging immigrants and focusing deportation efforts on the worst of the lost isn’t exactly radical stuff.

  9. Matt:


    I actually have it from the horse’s mouth.

    Immigration reform, tax reform, energy reform, education reform, and regulatory reform are the top five. I was told that they have a year only (before electoral politics kick in) and if they started with Obamacare nothing else would get done.

    Look for clean bills on the desk requiring a signature or veto with no excuses. It’s not what we’re used to, but then nothing is, is it?

  10. Inasmuch as Shelly’s horses (er, sources) are correct, it suggests President Obama’s actions on immigration are irrelevant except, perhaps, to change the Republicans’ agenda. Interestingly, my hunch is his order would make immigration reform a LOWER priority for Republicans.

    That said, my bet is that Shelly’s sources are optimistic but mistaken, sort of like how Boehner genuinely wanted to reach a “grand bargain” but ultimately realized he couldn’t. Indeed, the idea that the 2014 election made the current House more likely to reach bipartisan agreement than its predecessor strikes me as too cute by half. Unless Obama’s political standing rises dramatically in the next year or there is some exogenous shock, partisan gridlock will be the order of the day.

    Here is the one exception I can envision: imagine Hillary runs and is every bit as formidable as she appears. Republican leaders might have an interesting strategy of undercutting her campaign by cutting deals with President Obama, and President Obama would have strong incentives to say yes (even though the Clinton folks would go nuts). I’d say it is a long shot, but not totally out of the realm of possibility, especially if 2016 starts to feel like 1988 (in reverse). Other paths to bipartisanship strike me as little more than wishful thinking.

  11. Matthew – There’s two related empirical issues that your comments (and T’s and Shelly’s) raise: is immigration legislation possible in the current Congress, and have the additions to the Republican caucus made it more amenable to party leadership? Seems to me we ought to be able to dredge up some data to get some leverage on these points somewhere. (And, in Shelly’s defense, I think he’s saying only that a Republican-controlled Congress will give Obama an immigration bill to sign – whether he will sign it is another question. Depends on what is in the bill, of course!) I’ve written elsewhere that I don’t see any overall decrease in polarization due to the 2014 elections, so I agree with you on this point. But I always thought immigration was the potential exception – an issue that, as one of your earlier comments suggested more generally, Republicans might see as in their interest to work with Obama. But I’m mindful that my view is in the minority here!

    The Clinton scenario is an interesting one. In ’95-’96 Dole pressured Republicans to cut a budget deal but because of his presidential ambitions.

  12. Boehner doesn’t have control over his own party. And House members care most about being reelected, so those in safe Tea Party districts are not going to relent. The social conservatives used to be content with being members of the coalition, but now they want to take over the party and push out anyone who disagrees. (They are now convinced that they own the Republican brand and that anyone who isn’t firmly on the right is a RINO.)

    So suffice it to say that the GOP doesn’t have a coherent agenda or a strong candidate pool going into 2016. They’re too busy fighting over the controls and boasting about a mandate that they don’t have to develop those in time for the election.

    The offset to that is that the Democrats aren’t faring much better. Despite the enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, she is far from being an ideal candidate, and a lot could go wrong for her between now and the next election. (The Republicans make not have much of an agenda, but they may not need one.)

  13. T.:

    What is your source for you analysis and conclusion? Most of those you call “Tea Party” are not members of any named group; they are just Republicans who lean conservative. Most owe their election, mostly in 2010 to McCarthy and have a loyalty to him.

    He will have the votes for clean bills reforming the basics.

    The Senate is a little different; their majority is a tenuous one and 2016 does not have the same geography for them as did 2014. They know this and I believe they will also support clean bills in order to make the Democrats finally have to vote and defend their votes, and also to make Obama veto or sign. If he vetoes, Democrats will need to defend the veto in 2016.

    It is the path to turning around the electorate to vote for them as opposed to against the Denocrats.

    We will know soon enough as to who is right on this issue.

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