At halftime of his presidency, Obama looks to lessons of first four years

President Obama begins his second term in office Monday on a high — one tempered, however, by the experiences of his first four years and an awareness of how violently the political pendulum can swing.

At the time of his 2008 election win, some Obama supporters spoke about him in quasi-messianic terms. His first inauguration brought an enormous crowd to Washington’s National Mall and a broader excitement to the nation at large. Polling at the time gave Obama an approval rating of around 80 percent.

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But the depth of the nation’s economic troubles, a battle over healthcare reform and a large, if nebulous, sense that Obama had not fully lived up to his billing eroded the president’s popularity over the next couple of years. 

Those sentiments condemned Democrats to a heavy defeat in the 2010 midterm elections — a “shellacking,” to use Obama’s own description. His star would fall still farther in the wake of the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, before ascending again. 

Last year, Obama overcame economic circumstances of a kind that had doomed previous incumbents to win a comfortable reelection over Republican Mitt Romney. Since then, he has pressed his advantage over the GOP, especially in securing a favorable deal on the so-called “fiscal cliff” earlier this month.

Yet for all the drama that attended Obama’s first term, he stands only at the halfway mark of his presidency — his legacy uncertain, a series of fiscal crises looming and challenges sure to be encountered as he tries to enact second-term priorities such as gun control and immigration reform.

“He didn’t seek reelection just to be reelected,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. “He believes that we have work to do, and he believes that both the agenda he has put forward so far and the agenda he will put forward in the future will help this country move forward in a variety of ways.”

As Obama begins that process, his supporters are hopeful that he will incorporate lessons learned during his first term.

“I think there were too many long strides,” one former senior administration official said, looking back at missteps. “There was so much we tried to do — but so much had to be done.”

Obama, another former official said, “compromised too much in the beginning and earned no good will among the GOP. This frustrated the base because a lot of people said, ‘This isn’t who I voted for.’ People thought Barack Obama was the personification of President Bartlet on ‘The West Wing,’ but we all learned pretty quickly that there were a lot of things President Bartlet didn’t have to deal with.” 

Obama’s assertive approach to the fiscal-cliff talks, as well as his recent announcement on gun control, delighted liberals. They are happy with the policy specifics, but perhaps even more gleeful that Obama is taking the fight to the GOP.

Longtime Democratic strategist Chris Lehane asserted that Obama’s initial approach was “coming from a place of integrity. It was a genuine desire to be bipartisan, but it was a misreading of Washington, D.C., in this day and age.”

Of late, Lehane added approvingly, “he has been much more muscular in his exercise of presidential power.”

Conservatives have a very different take. They contend that the president has talked the talk of bipartisanship but has failed to walk the walk, instead preferring to try to force his agenda on his opponents. They cite a perceived unwillingness to truly consider cuts to entitlement spending as a prime example.

Moreover, they look askance at the confidence now exuded by Obama and his supporters, noting that the Democrats will be unable to move their domestic agenda forward without the consent of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

“Yes, the president got reelected. But the Congress and specifically House Republicans feel they were reelected, too,” Republican strategist Ed Rollins said.

Rollins noted that he himself had worked with two past Republican presidents — Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — who soon realized their thumping reelection victories did not give them carte blanche to act as they pleased.

“The president today can propose whatever he wants,” he said. “But it’s a long, tedious process to get legislation. I don’t know whether he has the skills, or the inclination, to get involved in that.”

Obama has already begun the push for gun control. Immigration reform would be another major achievement, if it happened, while environmentalists hope that he might take more sweeping action than he has thus far on climate change.

But there is also the danger that the nation’s fiscal issues will not be resolved in any meaningful way. If that occurs, a procession of congressional crises and unsatisfying stopgap measures might be the result.

“It makes him spend a lot of his political energy and a lot of his political capital — and that’s why it has been the strategy of the Republicans,” Princeton history and public affairs Professor Julian Zelizer said.

Obama is also going to have to try to boost the economy in a broader sense. And he will want to ensure the successful bedding-down of two of his major first-term accomplishments, the healthcare reform law and financial regulation.

“One thing that this election settled is that there aren’t going to be arguments with Congress about repealing any of this stuff,” Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf said. “But they have to implement and protect [those things].” 

Republicans, meanwhile, assert that Obama and the Democrats will never reap the benefits they expect from healthcare. They insist that the system will simply not work to improve healthcare choices, or to reduce costs, for the bulk of the population.

These debates are one reason why there is such fluidity around the question of Obama’s legacy. Moreover, the uncertain pace of economic recovery leaves a large, looming question mark.

“I think for most presidents there are two things that will define them,” Lehane said. “I think this president was always going to be defined in a historical context as the first African-American president. That is always going to be the first sentence. What is going to be the second sentence?

“If, by the end of his presidency, you have real economic growth, then the president came in and put the country on the path to growth. But if it is more modest, then it’s a stasis story. And if the economy goes backward, that is a different story again,” Lehane said.

Rollins hearkened back to the question of the ultimate fate of Obama’s first-term legislative accomplishments. 

“He got major pieces of legislation that he wanted. We’ll see if they work or not. We’ll see. It’s just a little early to be putting him on Mount Rushmore.”


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