Second term gives Obama chance to adopt new tone with lawmakers

President Obama has many motivations to strike a new tone as he begins his second term at the White House in January. Warmer relations with Congress, the business community and other power players outside his tight inner circle could help him make tangible progress across the board before lame-duck status looms.

Obama has been criticized throughout his first term for being an aloof and distant figure. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed disappointment that he hadn’t reached out enough on the phone and in person.  

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While other presidents have made use of excursions to Camp David and have brought the nation’s business to the golf course, Obama has largely abstained, with the exception of the now-famous foursome on the links with Vice President Biden, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Republican Gov. John Kasich (Ohio). And the regular White House cocktail parties the Obamas once held for lawmakers at the start of the first term quickly came to an end.

“The aloofness has definitely hurt him,” said one top Democratic strategist, adding that for Republicans, “it’s so much easier to talk crap about someone if you don’t know them.”

But observers and those close to the White House expect all that to change during a second term — they anticipate a more engaging Obama, who will work with lawmakers on everything from the so-called “fiscal cliff” to immigration reform.

“The signal I’ve gotten from the White House is that they realize they need to do more outreach,” said Jamal Simmons, another Democratic strategist. “The administration not only needs to do good policy, they need to make sure good politics is also being done.”

The president is inviting lawmakers to the White House this week to begin discussing a solution for the impending fiscal cliff of expiring tax rates and automatic spending cuts, which many economists warn could spark a recession. 

On Friday, Obama said he hoped the face-to-face talks would “build consensus on the challenges that we can only solve together,” and said he was “encouraged” by Boehner’s remarks that additional tax revenues would be part of a deficit-cutting deal. 

Lanny Davis, a former White House counsel to Bill Clinton and a columnist for The Hill, said that he believes Obama will follow the former president’s second-term model.

Davis said that while Clinton didn’t succeed in securing Republican support during his first term, in the second term, the former president found an unlikely partner in then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

“In his second term, President Clinton decided that in order to govern, you have to find the center,” Davis said. “You don’t give up your philosophical beliefs, but you find the sweet spot.”

While it remains to be seen if Obama will become a more effusive president like Clinton, he has shown the more human side of himself in recent days. In the last week on the campaign trail, a teary-eyed, humble and emotive Obama emerged.

On election night, Obama gave a glimpse to those who didn’t support his bid for a second term.

“Whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you,” he said. “I have learned from you and you’ve made me a better president.”

But second terms can be tough for incumbents, observers say, because of their lame-duck label and lawmakers on the other side of the aisle who aren’t eager to give the president a win.  

“There’s something about the second term that by nature is a challenge,” said Alfred J. Zacher, the author of the book Presidential Power in Troubled Second Terms. “And that’s because, one, of presidents’ inability to cope with Congress. This problem has consisted continuously regardless of party.”

Zacher predicted that Obama could face the same obstacles as former presidents, but even more so because he’s viewed as professorial and not one who is a natural back-slapper.

“It’s just not who he is,” Zacher said. “He’s an intellectual and very thoughtful ... but is not a person who should be at the [negotiating] table.”

Zacher advised that Obama, who he said has a “strong sense of self, determination and need to succeed and compete,” should involve an intermediary, like Erskine Bowles was for Clinton, in discussions with lawmakers.

Martin Sweet, an assistant visiting professor of political science at Northwestern University, added that the second term is a chance for Obama to make grand gestures, without fear of reelection.

“The big question will be if he is able to make overtures and really bring people together,” Sweet said. “Without having to face an election will he do risky things? The overtures so far are definitely there.”

But Davis said something more important than a second term looms: his legacy. 

“He’s now running for history and not reelection,” said Davis.

This story was updated at 12:10 p.m.