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Obama faces tough odds in second term

Past presidents have encountered deep opposition to second-term agenda.


As President Barack Obama takes the oath for the second time Monday, he is vowing big accomplishments during the next four years, including a new law to curb the spread of semi-automatic assault rifles and an overhaul of the nation’s laws on immigration.

Yet Obama enters what has been a perilous time for past presidents. With relatively few exceptions, a president’s second term ends in deep frustration rather than monumental accomplishment.

Woodrow Wilson suffered a disabling stroke two years into his second term. Harry Truman’s popularity plummeted because of the unpopular Korean War and his firing of American war hero General Douglas MacArthur.

Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace to avoid impeachment by the House because of his involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Bill Clinton was impeached by the House because of a sexual affair with a White House intern.

Except for Ronald Reagan and Clinton — who was acquitted after a Senate trial — every post-war president’s popularity with voters plunged during his second term.

President George W. Bush’s 62 percent average approval rating during his first term evaporated during a second term that featured the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the protracted war in Iraq and the 2008 collapse of the nation’s financial system.

Analysts cite a variety of explanations for what has become known as the second-term blues. They point out that a second-term president becomes a lame duck the moment after he takes the oath, with former Bush spokesman Tony Fratto saying that “window closes much sooner’’ today than in the past.

Some re-elected presidents misread their mandates, believing voters want them to pursue aggressive goals. Key advisers, exhausted by the grueling pace of the first four years, leave and get replaced by less-gifted officials.

“People get sick of the president after a few years,’’ said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California. “Even the most beloved TV series get old after a few seasons and so a second term is like Season 6 of the ‘X files.’ If Obama can just scrape by, he will beat the point spread.’’

Building enemies

Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institute and a White House adviser to President Dwight Eisenhower, said by the second term a president has kept “building enemies. Everything you do makes one friend and 10 enemies and before you know it, a majority of people who once liked you don’t like you anymore.’’

Much like Nixon and Bush, Obama is aggressively proclaiming a strong mandate from voters following his 4-point election victory over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. During a November news conference, Obama said he campaigned on higher taxes on the wealthy “and the majority of voters agreed with me.’’

“If there was one thing that everybody understood was a big difference between myself and Mr. Romney, it was when it comes to how to reduce our deficit,’’ Obama said. “I argued for a balanced, responsible approach, and part of that included making sure the wealthiest Americans pay a little more.’’

Obama employed that leverage this month to force congressional Republicans to raise income tax rates on households earning more than $450,000 a year. That deal allowed the nation to avoid a punishing combination of tax increases on everyone and deep spending reductions that would have gone into effect on Jan. 1.

But having won that battle, Obama is demanding even more GOP concessions on taxes. In a radio address on Jan. 4, Obama said he favors reducing the long-term federal deficit, but warned that “spending cuts must be balanced with more reforms to our tax code,’’ asserting that “the wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations shouldn’t be able to take advantage of loopholes and deductions that aren’t available to most Americans.’’

Presidents who staked out aggressive paths have often foundered in the past. After winning just 50.8 percent of the vote in 2004, Bush pronounced that he had “earned capital in this campaign — political capital — and now I intend to spend it.’’

He vowed to push Congress to approve a major overhaul of Social Security to allow Americans to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts, as well as reforming the income tax code and the nation’s immigration laws.

Instead, congressional Democrats blocked his Social Security plan, congressional Republicans opposed his immigration proposals and as the Iraq conflict descended into chaos, Bush’s political capital vanished.

“I don’t think any of us regret trying to do those big things,’’ said Fratto, who served as White House press secretary under Bush. “But he came out of that election with a view that a second term afforded him the opportunity to go after really big policy achievements. In retrospect, maybe he misread the political environment.’’

Other presidents saw even grander ambitions wither away in a second term. Wilson, narrowly re-elected in 1916, led the United States into the European War the following year. But he outlined a bold postwar strategy that would re-make the map of Europe while creating a League of Nations in which disputes would be peacefully settled.

When the Germans sued for an armistice, Wilson was at “the zenith’’ of his power, greeted in Paris in December of 1918 as the savior of Western democracy, historian Richard M. Watts wrote. But in short order, Republicans gained control of the Senate and blocked Wilson’s League of Nations. Under intense pressure, Wilson suffered a stroke and lived out his second term as a semi-invalid in the White House.

Unpopular decisions

Presidents often record their most sweeping achievements in their first term and run out of ideas for the second.

Obama’s first term enraged Republicans and disappointed some Democrats, but Fratto said it would be “hard to find a more consequential first term’’ than Obama’s. He pointed out that he won congressional approval for an overhaul of the health care and financial regulation systems as well as massive new federal spending to stabilize the economy.

“He got the bulk of his agenda in his first term,’’ Fratto said. “So what are the big items of his second term?’’

Nor can anyone predict what future events — internationally or domestically — can conspire to wreck a second term. An Israeli attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons’ program could embroil the U.S. in a new Middle East conflict. The chasm between the U.S. and Russia could deepen, thwarting Obama’s hopes for a smoother relationship.

It’s not likely that congressional Republicans will warm up to Obama anymore during a second term. And if things go wrong with the economy or his signature health care law, he’ll get the lion’s share of the blame.

“Decisions made in the first term come back to haunt presidents in the second term,’’ Pitney said. “In Ronald Reagan’s second term, the decisions on increasing defense spending and cutting taxes (in the first term) led to huge deficits and by the late 1980s deficit politics tended to dominate. The danger for President Obama is he won enactment of health care reform, but implementation is going to involve lot of very unpopular decisions.’’



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