Woodrow Wilson won the narrowest of re-elections in 1916 on a promise that he “kept us out of war” and promptly got the country into World War I. Grant’s second term was a mess of scandal and mismanagement that has forever tarnished his reputation. Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton had Monica and, in what was really his second term, Truman had Korea.
One of the great cautionary tales of the American presidency was Franklin Roosevelt’s second term. After winning a stunning landslide re-election, FDR squandered his massive goodwill with an audacious plan to expand the Supreme Court. Rebuffed on that hubristic notion, Roosevelt doubled down and attempted to “purge” fellow Democrats who the president thought too conservative. Every one of them survived and after 1937 Roosevelt never again commanded a working majority in the Congress for his domestic agenda. Had Roosevelt’s presidency ended after two terms, and had he been denied a chance to lead the nation during World War II, we might remember him today as a president who badly overreached in his second term and failed miserably.
Second terms are difficult. The very attributes that make a president feel comfortable in his second act are the ones that all too often get them in trouble – too much confidence, too much insulation from the rest of the world, a since of pride (hubris?) that the re-elected president has succeeded and his foes have not. Pride does goeth before a fall. Second terms are also marked by exhaustion, by staff members who get to thinking more about themselves than the job or the boss and by an almost inevitable running out of steam.
Barack Obama’s full-throated defense of political liberalism in his second inaugural address will be celebrated by many who have wondered if the cerebral college professor and community organizer is really committed to the progressive agenda. Wonder no more. However, great political speeches – and his will, I predict, go down in history as a great inaugural speech – require great political implementation if the ideas they embody are to be more than historical footnotes.
The real challenge for the president in his second term, more than avoiding scandal and overreach, is how he will apply the grease of political action to the sticky gears of political Washington. Since everyone has an opinion: here is a modest, yet attainable second term agenda for a president who has already past the rest of being transformative.
In a Nixon-goes-to-China way, Obama has a unique opportunity to be the American president who crafts a comprehensive reform of the big three entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – in a way that secures the essential national safety net for at least a generation. Talk about a legacy. Obama, because he truly believes in these programs, can be the transformative guy who makes them work far into the future. He’ll need to offend some of his friends, but what’s the presidency for anyway? Obama can stitch together a grand bargain – budget reductions, entitlement reforms, revenue, the whole ball of wax – if he wants, but he’ll need to bargain and trade. The question is whether he’s willing and able to go big and try to secure a truly historic deal.
On climate change, the president can merely order the EPA to aggressively regulate greenhouse gases and avoid a huge and eventually pointless fight with Congress and the energy industry. At the same time, the president can get his new Secretary of State working harder on meaningful international agreements. Obama also needs a sharp, politically effective EPA Administrator. How about bringing former New Jersey Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to EPA?
The country is already moving in the direction Obama stressed in the human and civil rights portions of his speech yesterday. Younger Americans, those under 35 say, don’t need to be convinced that the country’s civil rights agenda should be expanded more broadly to include gays. As Martin Luther King, Jr. (and others) have famously said, and Obama clearly knows, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Obama stands on the right side of history here and those who oppose him will find the country steadily moving away from them. He merely needs to continue to give voice and direction to the movement.
By the same token, given enough presidential attention, the country will move, perhaps not fast enough for some of us, but move nonetheless, on guns. Obama can influence this debate, as he already has, by focusing on the moral dimension of the country’s culture of violence. He is again on the right side of history.
On immigration reform Obama needs a Republican ally. The element of surprise in politics is badly underrated. Obama could surprise, and advance his own agenda, by offering to work directly with, say Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, to fix one issue that most sensible Republicans now know is going to continue to keep them from winning national elections. Obama has absolutely nothing to lose by reaching out to scared Republicans on this issue. He’s got them right where he wants them.
Part of the historic difficulty with a second term is that something unexpected always turns up. FDR had to move the country from isolation to international engagement as World War II began. Truman had to fire Douglas MacArthur. Nixon had to confront the White House taping system. Andrew Jackson had to confront the nullification crisis. And like most presidents in a second term, Thomas Jefferson was often pre-occupied with foreign affairs.
One reason, I suspect, that so many of his political opponents dislike Barack Obama so much is that they know, deep down, that he is indeed a transformational figure; one of those once-in-a-generation figures who changes politics and public understanding in lasting ways. Perhaps he is even, as some suggest, the Reagan of the left for the 21st Century. In any event, his place in history is secure as the first African-American elected not once, but twice to the highest office in the land. But the difficult second term will determine much more – whether he was merely the first or whether he’ll be among the great.