As President Obama embarks on another four years in office, he is mindful that history is littered with the wreckage of presidents’ second terms.
George W. Bush had the double-whammy of an unpopular war and a calamitous recession. Bill Clinton was impeached over lying about sex with an intern. Richard Nixon quit rather than face impeachment for Watergate. Even Ronald Reagan, whose second term included the beginnings of his cherished collapse of the Soviet Union, was damaged by the Iran-Contra scandal.
Mr. Obama is starting out on the wrong foot by feuding with Congress over the nation’s borrowing limit and gun control, said Al Zacher, author of the book “Presidential Power in Troubled Second Terms.” He said the rare successful second terms have involved presidents who forged good relationships with strong congressional leaders, such as Mr. Reagan with Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. and President Eisenhower with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.
“Getting along with Congress is the issue, and it was for the majority of those presidents who either succeeded or failed,” Mr. Zacher said. “The odds aren’t there for Obama.”
Evening those odds may be why a key Obama surrogate blitzed the airwaves Sunday to talk about a more productive second-term relationship between the White House and Congress.
Senior adviser David Plouffe, who made the rounds of several talk shows, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the president would do “a better job” working with lawmakers this term. “On the issues the president intends to really push and focus on, there’s massive support in the country, even amongst Republicans.”
A week after his re-election, Mr. Obama said he understood the lesson about presidents trying to do too much in their final four years.
“I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” Mr. Obama said.
“We are very cautious about that. On the other hand, I didn’t get re-elected just to bask in re-election. I got elected to do work on behalf of American families and small businesses all across the country who are still recovering from a really bad recession, but are hopeful about the future.”
If working with Congress is the key to a successful second term, Mr. Obama’s tone has been notable in reflecting his refusal to negotiate with lawmakers on the debt ceiling. During the final news conference of his first term, on Jan. 14, the president used the language of terrorism to describe House Republicans.
He said Republican lawmakers were trying to hold Americans hostage and were “holding a gun at the head of the American people” by demanding that Democrats cut deficit spending. Mr. Zacher said that attitude is reminiscent of President Wilson, whose inflexibility with Congress during his second term led to the failure of his League of Nations initiative.
“[Mr. Obama] has a hidden ego, which is now coming out,” Mr. Zacher said. “Wilson is one of the presidents who would not compromise, and his failures were due to his unwillingness to compromise. It was a dictatorial mood, which is really becoming apparent with this president.”
At least in terms of the debt ceiling, however, Mr. Obama’s approach may be winning the day. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said last week that colleagues in his party were considering a short-term extension of the debt limit.
Another challenge facing Mr. Obama, as with most other second-term presidents, is the loss of key personnel. Among the top players leaving his team are Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. Second-term nominees “tend to be a little less exciting,” said John Aldrich, professor of political science at Duke University.
“By definition, it can’t be your first choice for secretary of state,” Mr. Aldrich said. “You already made that one. The biggest concern is a break in continuity, and that’s why there are appointments like [Jack] Lew” — a reference to Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, who has been nominated to replace Mr. Geithner at Treasury.
For the moment, Mr. Obama and his advisers believe they have the political momentum. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Mr. Obama “feels very deeply” about his second-term agenda for improving the economy, reforming the immigration system and reducing deficits in a “balanced” way, i.e. with a blend of tax hikes and spending cuts.
“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,” Mr. Carney said.
A new Obama machine
The administration is being aided in advancing its early second-term agenda by the president’s campaign machinery, which is being transformed into a tax-exempt group by former campaign manager Jim Messina. Immediately after Mr. Obama introduced a package of gun control measures on Jan. 16, for example, Mr. Messina sent an email to millions of grass-roots supporters in the campaign’s database who had donated to the president’s re-election.
“People like you spoke out and demanded action,” Mr. Messina wrote. “Your input, along with ideas from leaders and policymakers across the political spectrum, went into the president’s plan. Learn more about the plan, and say you stand with President Obama in tackling this critical issue.”
The email provided a link to a Web page detailing the gun control proposals.
Federal Election Commission law required the Obama for America campaign to shut down after the election, but Mr. Messina said the social tools that were created by the campaign will remain active.
“People just spent five years winning two elections together,” he said shortly after the election. “They’re not now just going to walk away.”
Mr. Aldrich said there is little precedent for such a campaignlike operation working on behalf of a president’s second term, and it’s not clear how effective it will be on issues such as gun control, which Mr. Obama avoided studiously during his re-election bid.
“It’s not obvious how it’s going to transform [his base],” Mr. Aldrich said. “Gun control has not been central to his campaign.”
Mr. Obama’s team also understands that in the dubious history of second presidential terms, the opportunity to achieve anything significant is usually limited to the first year or so. After that, opponents tend to wait out the president, and his party usually loses seats in the congressional midterm elections.
By then, the jockeying is well under way in both parties among candidates hoping to replace the second-term president.
“Only rarely do second-term presidents retain their power through more than 18 months or so,” Mr. Zacher said.
• John Sopko contributed to this report.