Obama's second term: What history says to expect
The myths and realities of second-term presidents – and what they portend for Obama.
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The Senate killed one of Wilson's signature initiatives – American membership in the League of Nations. A Republican House blocked many of Clinton's legislative efforts.Skip to next paragraph
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Then there was F.D.R.
"He had a disastrous first half" to his second term, says Jeff Shesol, author of "Supreme Power," which chronicles F.D.R.'s fight with a hostile Congress and Supreme Court.
The root of F.D.R.'s problems had come in his first four years. The court had blocked so many of his New Deal programs that after reelection he concocted a plan to "pack" the court by increasing the number of justices. The Senate rejected his efforts.
Facing a deep recession in 1938, F.D.R. used the midterm elections to try purging the Senate of his enemies; the effort failed. "After that, the Senate was dead set against him," says Mr. Shesol. Fortunately for F.D.R., by 1939 Americans were preoccupied with war in Europe. Domestic worries receded.
"If it hadn't been for World War II," Shesol says, "we'd say he had a successful first term but the second was a squandered opportunity."
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The image of F.D.R. then versus now highlights another point about legacies: how Americans see presidents through a glass darkly. Coolidge finished his second term immensely popular, but historians fault him for not doing more to prevent the Depression. Jefferson and Truman left office vastly unpopular. Historians and the public are more reverential today.
Time will influence Obama's reputation, too. As he prepares to place his hand on the Bible and take the oath of office for the second time, what problems might he face?
Most commentators discount the possibility of a personal moral scandal from a president who mentions his wife and daughters in speech after speech. And they are dubious about his taste for entering into the kind of trillion-dollar-plus war of choice that Iraq turned out to be.
The economy? In one sense good news lies ahead. Even during the campaign, many financial analysts predicted that, while the economy might weaken in 2013, the US should experience at least modest job growth over the next four years no matter who won the election. Congress and the White House have also agreed to part of a "fiscal cliff" deal – an increase in income taxes for the very rich.
Still, Democrats and Republicans differ sharply over how to cut government spending and extend the debt ceiling. Whatever agreements emerge over those issues, there's no question that Obama will move through his second term without the money to fund everything – like infrastructure – on his domestic agenda.
And as happens with every president, some of the big events of the second term will take everyone by surprise: Think 9/11, hurricane Katrina, and the Arab Spring.
Yet history offers lessons about how to surmount various problems in a second term. In Obama's case, two seem worth exploring.
The first is divided government.
Shesol thinks F.D.R.'s second term is particularly instructive for Obama, also facing a hostile Congress and court, but not necessarily because it should teach him to avoid what is often offered as the reason for F.D.R.'s mistakes: hubris.
"If this was hubris, so was Social Security," says Shesol, noting that the court-packing vote was close and F.D.R. might have won with a little more compromise. "This was risk-taking."
To him, more plausible is that, lulled by a landslide in 1936, F.D.R. departed in his second term from his usual pattern. "He had an utter willingness to draw people in," Shesol says of F.D.R.'s first term. "To build coalitions, to bring members of Congress into the White House and make them think his ideas were their ideas."