The problem with Obama's second term

President Obama is allowing the controversies that typically arise in a second term dominate his presidency because he has failed to define his core agenda. Is it a grand bargain on the budget deficit, gun control, jobs, or immigration reform? It's hard to tell.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama speaks on the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups for extra tax scrutiny in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday May 15, 2013. These and other crises are distracting Mr. Obama from defining a core agenda.

Six months into a second term and the Obama White House is on the defensive and floundering: Benghazi, the IRS’s investigations of right-wing groups, the Justice Department’s snooping into journalists’ phone records, Obamacare behind schedule, the Administration’s push for gun control ending in failure.

Should the blame fall mainly on congressional Republicans and their allies in the right-wing media, whose vitriolic attacks on Obama are unceasing?

After all, the only thing the GOP stands for – the sole mission that unites its warring factions — is an unwaivering determination to block anything the Administration seeks while distracting public attention from any larger issue.

But surely some of the seeming disarray is due to the President, whose insularity and aloofness make him an easy target, and whose eagerness to compromise and lack of focus continuously blurs his core message.

Is the central goal of his second term to achieve a grand bargain on the budget deficit? Or progress on gun control? Or restore jobs? Or reform the immigration laws? It is difficult to tell.

Vulnerabilities come with any Administration’s second term — when officials are exhausted, public support has worn thin, “A” teams have departed, the media are disenchanted, and all of the low-hanging fruit in a president’s agenda has already been picked.

I painfully recall Bill Clinton’s second term (I left before Monica). George W. Bush’s second term was marred by Iraq and a colossal failure on Social Security. Ronald Reagan’s, by the Iran-Contra scandal. Even FDR got mired in a so-called “court-packing” scheme that lost him public and congressional support.

Which is why it’s so important for a second-term White House to define itself — to give the public a clear sense of what it stands for, and how it intends to tackle the largest challenges facing the nation. And then to work hard on this core agenda without becoming overly distracted by the inevitable fires that have to be extinguished along the way. 

Even if a president fails to achieve this larger objective, he will at least have established a predicate for the future, and given the public a larger goal around which to mobilize and organize. 

Barack Obama is allowing the fires to dominate because he has not defined his core agenda. During the 2012 campaign it appeared to be restoring jobs, rebuilding the middle class, and reversing the scourge of widening inequality. Since then, though, the core has evaporated – leaving him and his administration vulnerable to every pyromaniac on the Potomac.

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