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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Samuel "Sandy" Berger was national security adviser in Clinton's second term. Now chair of a consulting firm he formed with Madeleine Albright, Clinton's former secretary of State, he ticks off the three tools presidents use to shape foreign policy: "Defense is one tool; diplomacy and development are the others," he says – and then notes how hard it will be to make progress using any of them.
Take, for example, Obama's effort to nudge Arab countries toward democracy. Why can't he do as well as the Clinton administration did when it stabilized countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union? "We had something [Obama] won't have – hundreds of millions of dollars for assistance," Mr. Berger says. "Obama won't have the money to stabilize democracies, to pour into Egypt or Libya."
The money worries that dominate the fiscal-cliff debate are broader than domestic issues. Berger worries generally about retrenchment. "Americans are weary of war," he says. "Clearly we have to address domestic problems. But at the exclusion of problems in the world?"
He cites talk of cutting the State Department budget. "We need to engage more, not less. Not everything is costly. Diplomacy is not costly. But if we cut further, we can't operate in the world."
Berger praises a lot of what Obama accomplished in the first term. "His cardinal achievement was bringing down our involvement in Afghanistan, ending the war in Iraq – and progress against Al Qaeda."
Concerned about the delay in taking the lead during the Arab Spring, he knows administrations learn from experience because his did. He cites Bosnia. "We held back. Didn't lead. After two years we took the lead. Got to the negotiating table at Dayton. That taught us a valuable lesson when it came to Kosovo."
He's hopeful Obama's second term will see him defer less to the Europeans. "Where we lead matters," he says.
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That bridge to the 21st century concerning speechwriter Waldman stayed in the inaugural. In one of his last speeches, Clinton told the White House Correspondents' Association dinner he was preparing his résumé. He pretended to tick off a bunch of things he'd done. One was "Designed, built, and painted bridge to the 21st century." It got a big laugh.
Whether or not Clinton upended the "existing order," no curse held him back. In the 21 second terms beginning with George Washington's, obstacles recur. But a curse? Even the least successful presidents do a lot to build their bridges to the future.
More to the point is something Reagan said when he gave the farewell speech at the end of his second term.
Reagan's writers gave him a story to help make a point – of a moment early in his tenure when sailors on an American ship in the South China Sea spotted a boat low in the water, crammed with Vietnamese refugees.
A sailor watched as the boat drew closer. Finally, one of the refugees stood up and called, "Hello, Freedom Man."
Reagan doesn't drive home his obvious belief: that his administration helped bring freedom to people around the world. His claim is more modest – one that, unlike claims of a curse, is true of every president, and will be true of Obama.
"We weren't just marking time," Reagan said. "We made a difference."
•Robert A. Lehrman is a novelist and former chief White House speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. Author of "The Political Speechwriter's Companion," he teaches at American University and co-runs a blog, PunditWire.