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Obama's second term: What history says to expect

The myths and realities of second-term presidents – and what they portend for Obama.

(Page 5 of 6)

Could more of that from Obama ease the bitter conflict that dominated much of his first term? "I'd advise him to start wooing members of Congress," says Judge. "Accept compromise. Republicans now believe the president is out to destroy the Republican Party."

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Of course, Democrats argue that the president has been too quick to compromise – 34 percent of them in one recent poll about tax cuts. Does ideology play a role here, too?

* * *

Sitting by the window in his Chesapeake Bay house late one rainy morning, former Michigan Democratic Rep. David Bonior thinks about the divide between Republicans and Democrats. It's a subject he knows something about, having served 13 terms in Congress, including as former majority and minority whip (and, full disclosure, 20 years ago, as this writer's boss).

Mr. Bonior was part of a hostile Democratic majority under Reagan. Who better to know how presidents should handle a hostile Congress? How could Reagan get so much done in the early 1980s when Democrats had as big a majority as Republicans have now?

To Bonior, that's no mystery. "Understand the ideological structure," he says. "Republicans are more homogeneous. It's easier to go shopping for Democrats [on votes] because we're ideologically more diverse."

He points to another element. "Besides, Reagan's big victory was tax cuts. Tip [O'Neill] tried hard to stop them. It's not hard to cut taxes."

The criticism Obama gets for not cultivating Congress more doesn't come just from Republicans. "He's not a schmoozer," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri said recently.

Bonior believes personal relationships matter. "Clinton was magnificent at it," he says. "George [H.W.] Bush liked Congress. He'd come down to the gym and play handball with Sonny Montgomery, a Democrat. I liked him."

Did this make things easier on issues on which they agreed? Yes, Bonior says, mentioning times when he worked with the Reagan White House on Central American issues. But then he remembers with relish a speech he made on the House floor that infuriated Bush. Personal relationships only go so far when lawmakers passionately disagree.

Bonior admires Obama. What seems to worry him more than his reaching out to Republicans is Obama's relationship with his own party. "Check this," he says. He mentions the number of fundraisers Obama attended for Democratic House candidates. It's a low number. "If he did more we might be eight seats down [instead of 20]," Bonior says. "And money isn't the only way. It's a phone call: 'Congressman, you have a call from the president. He wants to chat. Get your ideas.' "

He remembers being invited to Camp David during the Clinton years, though he had fought his own president over the North American Free Trade Agreement. "You're eating breakfast with Clinton. He's throwing balls to his dog. You're honored to be there," he says.

In fairness, Hoffman and Howard have analyzed Obama's first term numbers in getting legislation through Congress. They find him succeeding at above the median rate. Even after Republicans took control of the House in 2010, his rate only went down to a "respectable" 42.7 percent.

Still, the lesson is clear. Even those who admire Obama think he could reach out more.

There's a second area in which history might be instructive: foreign affairs. In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize address, Obama called his accomplishments abroad "slim," adding "in part this is because I am at the beginning, not the end, of my labors on the world stage."

Presidents often look abroad to burnish their legacy in second terms. Obama, limited at home by fiscal-cliff agreements, might follow that pattern. There's no shortage of tasks: blocking Iran's nuclear program without going to war, moving Arab countries toward democracies, withdrawin from a stable Afghanistan, forging an arms agreement with Russia, renewing a focus on Asia that maintains relations with China.


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