Four more years? Obama’s dwindling prospects in a second term


Four more years for Obama. Now what? What does Barack Obama do in his second term and what can he accomplish? Simply put, his options are limited and the prospects for major success quite limited.

Presidential power is the power to persuade as Richard Neustadt famously stated. Many factors determine presidential power and the ability to influence including personality (as James David Barber one argued), attitude towards power, margin of victory, public support, support in Congress, and one’s sense of narrative or purpose. Additionally, presidential power is temporal, often greatest when one is first elected, and it is contextual, affected by competing items on an agenda. All of these factors affect the political power or capital of a president.

Presidential power also is a finite and generally decreasing product. The first hundred days in office–so marked forever by FDR’s first 100 in 1933–are usually a honeymoon period where presidents often get what they want. FDR gets the first new deal, Ronald Reagan gets Kemp-Roth, George Bush in 2001 gets his tax cuts.

But over time presidents lose political capital. Presidents get distracted by world and domestic events, they lose support in Congress or among the American public, or they turn into lame ducks. This is the problem Obama now faces.

Obama had a lot of political capital when sworn in as president in 2009. He won a decisive victory for change with strong approval ratings and had majorities in Congress with eventually a filibuster margin in the Senate when Al Franken finally took office in July. Obama used his political capital to secure a stimulus bill and then pass the Affordable Care Act. He eventually got rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and secured many other victories. But Obama was a lousy salesman and he lost what little control of Congress that he had in the 2010 elections.

Since then Obama has be stymied in securing his agenda. Moreover, it is really unclear what his agenda for a second term is. Mitt Romney was essentially right on when arguing that Obama had not offered a plan for four more years beyond what we saw in the first term. Whatever successes Obama had in the first term, simply do a replay in the next four years will not work.

First, Obama faces roughly the same hostile Congress going forward as he did for the last two years. Do not expect to see the Republicans making it easy for him. Second, the president’s party generally does badly in the sixth year of his term. This too will be the case in 2014, especially when Democrats have more seats to defend in the Senate than the GOP.

Third, the president faces a crowded and difficult agenda. All the many fiscal cliffs and demands to cut the budget will preoccupy his time and resources, depleting money he would like to spend on new programs. Obama has already signed on to an austerity budget for his next four years–big an bold is not there. Fourth, the Newtown massacre and Obama’s call for gun reform places him in conflict with the NRA. This is a major battle competing with the budget, immigration, Iran, and anything else the president will want to do.

Finally, the president is already a lame duck and will become more so as his second term progress.

One could go on but the point should be clear–Obama has diminishing time, resources, support, and opportunity to accomplish anything. His political capital and presidential influence is waning, challenging him to adopt a minimalist agenda for the future.

What should Obama? Among the weaknesses of his first term were inattention to filling federal judicial vacancies. Judges will survive beyond him and this should be a priority for a second term, as well as preparing for Supreme Court vacancies. He needs also to think about broader structural reform issues that will outlive his presidency, those especially that he can do with executive order.

Overall, Obama has some small opportunities to do things in the next four years–but the window is small and will rapidly close.