Election night victory cements Obama’s first-term legislative legacy

CHICAGO — President Obama’s reelection on Tuesday night elevated his place in history — no matter what happens in his second term. 

A defeat would have allowed GOP opponent Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress to roll back Obama’s healthcare overhaul and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. 

With the president in office, Americans will be required, beginning in 2014, to purchase health insurance, a mandate intended to cover the costs of insuring millions that the Supreme Court earlier this year ruled constitutional. 

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“The implementation of legislation is as important as its passage, but the rules and guidelines that accompany it take time to develop. That is one of the reasons presidents want a second term: to solidify their first-term victories,” said Martha Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University who has chronicled the Obama White House. 

Obama’s plans for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will also move forward, and in four years the president will have ended two wars and overseen the killing of Osama bin Laden. 

The president’s attempt to lift the country past the Great Recession would have been judged a failure in the event of a loss to Romney. The victory gives Obama an opportunity to benefit from cyclical improvements in the economy, some of which could be boosted by pent-up demand. 

While uncertainty about the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and spending cuts is an oft-cited reason why businesses are sitting on $2 trillion, they have also been waiting for voters to signal the nation’s direction. 

“It certainly helps that as we speak, we know who the president-elect is; that is one positive aspect of last night,” said Richard Hunt, president and CEO of the Consumer Bankers Association.

If Obama benefits from an improving economy over the next four years —no sure thing — he would improve his party’s chances of holding the presidency for a third consecutive term, something the party hasn’t been able to do since FDR. 

“His place in history was always assured as the first black president, but now, as he locks down the major achievements of his first term … he gets to build on that,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. 

A deficit-reduction deal is possible, and Obama has said he wants to work with Republicans on immigration reform.

The president made calls to congressional leaders on Wednesday as a presage to talks on the fiscal cliff. The second term gives Obama new leverage, particularly since he no longer has to worry about reelection himself.

Jillson said second terms are “tough,” and while presidents have lofty goals — President George W. Bush, for example, tried unsuccessfully to introduce private Social Security accounts — it’s difficult to hammer through substantive initiatives. 




Yet there are reasons to think Obama could be successful on both deficit reduction and immigration reform. 

The size of budget deficits has given both sides pause, and the expiration of tax rates this year might offer an opportunity to cut the deficit and reform the tax code at the same time. 

Republicans will look at the demographic results of the 2012 election and find that they are quickly losing Hispanic voters. Obama won the Latino vote in Colorado by 50 points. Obama has said the GOP could look to move on immigration out of political self-interest.

“In addition to locking down [the] major accomplishments of his first term, if he’s able to do immigration and put the country on the path to a sustainable fiscal policy, he will ranked as one of the great Democratic presidents,” Jillson said. 

With the campaign in his rearview mirror, Obama has a “very good idea” about where he wants to take the nation in his second term, a senior administration official said. 

“His closing argument on the stump was a recitation of promises kept,” the official said. “And for somebody who has governed in challenging and difficult times, it says a lot about his character and leadership style and says a lot about his aspirations for a second term. He does have a clear vision for where this country should go.”

William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to Bill Clinton, said Obama has big challenges ahead in dealing with a divided government.

“The government does remain divided, and I know there are a lot of people in the Democratic Party who believe the president doesn’t have to compromise,” Galston said. “But he has no choice but to negotiate. The chance of getting stuff done is dependent on his negotiations. He can’t force his will on House Republicans.”

Obama will have to act quickly, in the first two years of his second term before the midterm elections, before he is labeled a lame duck.

“People begin to look past you, particularly after the next midterm,” Jillson said. “He has a window here. He’ll really have a year to 18 months to do his signature items.”

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and commentator on African-American issues, said Obama’s reelection “confirmed that 2008 was not an aberration.”

“I think healthcare reform broke a barrier, in terms of doing something that Democratic presidents had tried and failed to do for a hundred years,” Ofari Hutchinson said. “And I think there’s another barrier legislatively that can be broken: immigration reform.”

— Peter Schroeder contributed to this report.