Second terms have rarely been kind to American presidents.
Our last two-term leader,
Even our greatest modern presidents had rocky second terms:
What goes wrong in a second term? Plenty.
The soaring ideas and idealism that brought a president victory the first time yield to narrower, more experienced calculations of what he can achieve in practice the second time around. The aides who helped him succeed move on to other jobs, and their successors in the second term often look like the B-team.
A second-term president is a lame duck from election day on; if Congress didn't fear him much before, it will soon fear him even less. And if there's any scandal lurking in an administration's closets, the second term is often when it tumbles into view.
On the surface, the political foundation of Obama's second term looks weaker than those of his predecessors. All the others — Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Bush — won more votes running for reelection than they had the first time. They succeeded in enlarging their coalitions, not shrinking them. Some won their second terms with landslide margins: Nixon and Roosevelt with 61% of the popular vote.
Obama doesn't have that kind of overwhelming mandate. In 2008, Obama won 28 states and 53% of the popular vote. This year, once the dust settles, he appears likely to win 26 states, with a near tie in the popular vote.
The electorate might well have fired him — except it never warmed to his opponent.
The kind of campaign Obama waged didn't build much of a mandate either. His campaign slogan was almost content-free: "Forward." Much of his pitch was negative, a promise not to enact the conservative changes his opponent was proposing. "We know what change looks like, and what he's selling ain't it," Obama said in his combative stump speeches.
His positive agenda — and he did have one, contrary to what some critics say — was mostly a plea for a chance to "finish the job," to complete the unfinished work of the first term. But as a program for his second term, it's markedly less ambitious than the expansive goals he listed four years ago.
In his most serious policy discussion of the last month — his interview with
And Obama has spent plenty of time in the last few weeks talking with Clinton, a supremely pragmatic president who regularly enraged his party's liberal base whenever he thought a lunge to the right might help him pass legislation through a Republican-held Congress.
"I may be the only person in America, but I am far more enthusiastic about President Obama this time than I was four years ago," Clinton said as he campaigned for the president last week.
Why? "He has the right philosophy," Clinton said: "Cooperation works better than conflict. Practical problem-solving is better than ideological extremism."
Two factors will determine what kind of second term Obama has: One is what lessons
If we're lucky, we will find that we elected a different Obama from the one who won the presidency four years ago — not just a grayer Obama but a wiser one too.