Obama’s 2nd term travails: A lame duck before his time?

WASHINGTON. — The woes of a second term are nothing new, but for President Obama they seem to have started sooner and struck harder than for his predecessors.

In his State of the Union address, delivered precisely six months ago Monday, Obama outlined a scaled-down agenda for his sixth year in office, acknowledging the difficulty of passing legislation in a gridlocked Congress and vowing to use “the pen and the phone” to get things done. Now even those circumscribed ambitions have been overshadowed by crises overseas that are demanding his attention and buffeting his presidency.

“He’s a lame duck and it’s not even lame-duck time,” says Sara Fagen, who knows the territory. As White House political director during George W. Bush’s second term, she saw that administration face growing resistance in Congress and have to battle for attention as the political world turned to the next presidential election — but not, she says, as early as Obama has had to deal with those complications.

White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri acknowledges it has gotten harder to command the attention of the news media. “A lot of the press around the first term is focused on what whatever action the president is taking will mean for his or her ability to have a second term,” she said. “That sort of motivation for the press is removed.”

But during second terms, as with first ones, “you need to be focused on the opportunities and prepared for whatever problems are going to be coming your way,” she says. “The world doesn’t stop spinning.”

For Obama, the world has become a dramatically more problematic place in recent weeks, from the Israeli pounding of Palestinians in Gaza to Russia’s role in the shootdown of a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine. In Iraq, insurgents have scored unexpected territorial gains, a development that could affect the administration’s calculations about the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

And at home, enacting any sort of major legislation over the next two and a half years is hard to imagine. The White House has shelved the idea of legislation to overhaul the immigration system, once hoped to be a centerpiece of his second term. Even his request for emergency funding to deal with the influx of children from Central America is stalled on Capitol Hill.

“Today, we actually signed a bill,” Obama declared to laughter at a Seattle fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee last week. “It was shocking.” (It was an uncontroversial law to streamline federal job-training programs.)

Early in his presidency, Obama overruled aides concerned about pursuing a sweeping health care overhaul, telling them he hadn’t been sent to the White House to “do school uniforms.” The exchange, reported by Jonathan Alter in his book The Promise, was a dig at small-bore initiatives Bill Clinton had pursued, especially during his second term.

Now Obama apparently sees the value of executive orders, pilot projects, White House conferences and public-private partnerships — some with broad impact, others to more symbolic effect. “There are a lot that are very large and there are some that are smaller,” White House counselor Dan Pfeiffer told reporters Friday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

This month, the White House issued a 42-page report detailing more than 40 things Obama had done during the first six months as part of the “year of action” he had promised in the State of the Union. They ranged from new EPA rules limiting carbon pollution — a major initiative to combat climate change — to a White House “summit” on helping student athletes avoid concussions.

Which is not so far afield from Clinton’s effort to increase safety and discipline for students by, well, requiring school uniforms.


The president’s recent two-term predecessors — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — also encountered political setbacks and international upheaval in the second half of their second terms.

In Reagan’s sixth-year midterm election, Republicans lost control of the Senate. In Bush’s sixth-year midterm, Republicans lost control of both the House and Senate. Congress voted to override Reagan’s veto of the Water Quality Control Act and Bush’s veto of the farm bill. Lobbying for administration-backed bills got harder.

“The further we got away from Clinton’s re-election, the less likely Congress was going to work with the president to get something done,” recalls Stephanie Cutter, a senior aide in the Clinton and Obama administrations who is now co-host of CNN’s Crossfire. “So he turned to foreign policy and he turned to executive actions. That’s not dissimilar to what’s happening today, except Congress started saying ‘no’ much earlier.”

Even so, during their final two years or so in office, Reagan was engaged with a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, paving the way for the end of the Cold War. Clinton helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Bush dramatically expanded his initiative to combat AIDS in Africa.

Former aides and analysts see some lessons from their experiences that Obama might want to consider:

1.Defy your party.

The legislative achievements often involved compromises that put the president at odds with members of Congress from his own party. Clinton signed a balanced-budget bill in 1997 that acceded to Republican demands to end deficit spending. During his final months in office, in 1988, Reagan signed a bipartisan welfare bill that brought complaints from conservatives about creating make-work public jobs. And the only members of Congress who voted against Bush’s proposal in 2008 to triple funding to combat global AIDS were fellow Republicans.

In lobbying for the welfare bill, Reagan “called members of Congress; he had them over; he talked to them,” including those who were ideological opponents, says Frank Donatelli, Reagan’s White House political director. (One key ally on the welfare bill: Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas.)

There’s an early test of that for Obama now. As a price for providing emergency funding to deal with the flood of children arriving illegally from Central America, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has demanded Obama break with Democratic congressional allies by lobbying to change a 2008 law to make it easier to deport the immigrants.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, says Obama has refused so far to engage in that sort of political give-and-take, although Democrats fault congressional Republicans for unyielding opposition to the president. “This is not a job where you give a speech and expect people to just fall neatly in line and do what you ask them to do,” Cornyn told USA TODAY’s Capital Download. “You have to do some deals. You have to compromise.”

Obama better get used to the idea, especially if Republicans succeed in gaining control of the Senate as well as the House in November, says William Galston, an adviser in the Clinton White House. “It’s close to metaphysically certain that for the Obama administration to get anything done on the legislative front, it will have to swallow compromises, including elements it regards as bad public policy.”

2. Look abroad.

The world tends to pay heed to presidents even when Congress no longer does — a lesson applied by Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson even during the darkest days of their presidencies. Late in their tenures, Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Gorbachev and Clinton helped negotiate the Wye River Memorandum between Israel and the Palestinians.

Obama seems to face an unpromising global landscape at the moment, amid crises erupting around the world.

“This isn’t unprecedented,” Bruce Jones, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, says of the confluence of events. “That said, these are crises of a political saliency, happening at the same time, (and) that is an unusual strain on the top of our foreign policy.” He says it has created “this sense of overload.”

Republican critics say Obama’s lack of leadership on the world stage during his first term created a vacuum that has fueled some of the current problems. “The president has to be more engaged, frankly,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said in an interview on MSNBC. “He has to demonstrate a level of engagement and leadership that we aren’t seeing today.”

The most promising opportunity for Obama could be the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program. “I have believed for some time that the only remaining game-changer would be a successful negotiation with Iran, producing a treaty that the Obama administration could then induce both the Congress of the United States and the Israelis to accept,” Galston says. “That would be a foreign policy achievement on the order of Camp David” — President Carter’s signature accord between Israel and Egypt.

That said, there are no guarantees of success in foreign policy, despite presidential effort. An ambitious 1986 summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, collapsed. Intensive negotiations brokered by Clinton between Israeli leader Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000 failed.

3. Brace for scandal.

There’s one more unifying theme for two-term presidents: Scandals erupt.

A study by Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan, published in the British Journal of Political Science, concluded that the likelihood of a presidential scandal peaks in the fifth year of his tenure.

“Even conditional on other things that matter, second terms really do seem to have a surge of them,” he says. One reason is that there is time for misdeeds in the first term to be uncovered. “You’re accumulating a set of actions that could become the raw material for scandal as you’re in office longer and longer.”

Another factor was how much voters who identify with the opposition party dislike the president — the situation Obama has faced with Republicans for some time. “You see a base that gets restless and is primed to encourage their elected officials to jump on potential evidence of misconduct,” Nyhan says.

Reagan was forced to admit in November 1986 that his administration had secretly sold arms to Iran, violating federal law, and then funneled the profits to the Nicaraguan contras. For Bush, an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded he and others in his administration had exaggerated the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — a prime justification for the invasion of Iraq.

Then, of course, there is the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Revelations of Clinton’s affair with a White House intern in his first term prompted the House to impeach him during his second, though the Senate ultimately acquitted him.


Whatever Obama’s current travails, the nature of the presidency means big events and his response to them could change things in a snap. “Right now, fewer of the American people are paying attention to what he’s saying and what’s he’s doing,” says former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, “but anything can happen any day to turn it around.”

“The man is commander of chief of the armed forces; he enforces and executes the laws,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “They are invested with tremendous power, irrespective of whether Congress or anyone else is listening to them.”

But he adds: “It’s also true that the president’s ability to control the legislative agenda is very limited. That’s a fact of our political life.”