Four years ago, on the eve of his first inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama faced enormous challenges and sky-high expectations.
The economy was on the verge of collapse, and the nation was embroiled in two wars. But Americans were infused with optimism that the young senator from Illinois, about to make history as the nation’s first black president, would deliver on his promise of transformational, post-partisan leadership.
Mr. Obama took office with a Gallup job approval rating in the stratosphere, near 70 percent. Now he embarks on his second term with the public stature of a mere mortal – job approvals averaging in the low 50s, up from first-term lows that had dipped below 40 percent – and even starker polarization.
“Hope and change” have given way to cold-eyed realism. Obama’s big Democratic majorities in Congress – the one-party rule that allowed him to pass the biggest stimulus bill in history, auto and financial industry bailouts, and sweeping health-care reform – are long gone, in part precisely because of all those big measures.
But as circumstances have changed, so too has Obama. Having entered office without much executive experience, he has learned by doing. Initially, his impulse was to throw out broad concepts and let his Democratic allies in Congress fill in the legislative details. After the midterm shellacking, and the tea-party fueled Republican takeover of the House, the next two years were marked by gridlock and brinkmanship – and an ugly reelection campaign.
Now Obama is playing a different game.
“He’s had a steep learning curve, but I think he’s learned a bit about how to negotiate,” says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “He’s tougher now.”
Instead of trying to make nice with congressional Republicans, his team has made clear, Obama will work the opposition from the outside, traveling out into the country more and playing to public opinion. His tech-savvy campaign operation, Obama for America, has morphed into Organizing for Action, an effort to turn his millions of supporters into a digital army that “will work to turn our shared values into legislative action,” as Obama wrote in an e-mail to supporters.
After the frustrations of trying to negotiate with House Speaker John Boehner (R), Obama now seems set to use the bully pulpit to exploit congressional Republicans’ extraordinarily low public approval. Already, the House Republicans’ decision Friday not to extract concessions in exchange for raising the debt ceiling for three months represents a bow to public opinion.
But there are two more “fiscal cliffs” to come on which Obama is in a weaker position – the late-February deadline for deep spending cuts known as the “sequester” and the end of federal spending authority on March 27. Obama also faces longstanding pressure to put entitlement cuts on the table.
The Republican game may be to tie Obama down, as the Lilliputians did to Gulliver, with all the fiscal cliffs. But Obama is still dreaming big. Many agenda items remain from the first term, including immigration reform, climate change, and energy.
“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” he said after his Nov. 6 election victory.
Then there’s gun control, which Obama barely mentioned in his first term but has become an emotional priority following last month’s school massacre in Newtown, Conn. On that front, some of the legislative elements – especially a renewed ban on assault weapons – will be difficult to get through the GOP-run House. He also took executive action on gun violence, a work-around that he has turned to increasingly on a variety of issues since the Republicans retook the House two years ago.
Still, working on the edges doesn’t fit Obama’s “go big or go home” philosophy of governing. And on the biggest issue of all – the sluggish economic recovery, marked by unemployment still near 8 percent and stagnant wages – Obama still harbors hopes of additional spending in education, research and development, and infrastructure. The core promise of his reelection campaign was to revitalize the middle class, no small goal.
“He doesn’t want to leave here in four years having put through a few executive orders on guns and maybe an immigration bill,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “He wants folks to say, ‘Jeez, this was big, this was a big presidency.' ”
Obama is aware of the potential pitfalls ahead. “I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” he said in his first post-reelection press conference.
Political capital earned from reelection, and from the accompanying boost in job approval, could be fleeting. Obama is, by definition, now a lame duck. By the middle of next year, the political world will be embroiled in the next midterm campaign, and once again legislating will take a back seat. So realistically, he has only 18 months in which to add more domestic accomplishments to his legacy.
Typically, second-term presidents turn to foreign policy, where they have freer rein. To be sure, Obama has many challenges ahead: Iran’s nuclear ambitions, declining relations with Russia, the rise of China, instability in the Arab world.
But it’s possible that Obama will buck the “second term globetrotter” convention, as he gives domestic priorities top billing – backed up by a war-weary nation. Of course, it’s impossible to predict events, but his choice of Defense secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, suggests a focus on the home front. Mr. Hagel is known for his past opposition to the Iraq War and to future foreign military entanglements.
In the end, just by winning reelection he has guaranteed that the signature achievement of his first term – Obamacare – will not be repealed. His administration is now focused on implementation. But whether health-care reform ends up being his biggest legacy remains to be seen.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. “The ultimate answer requires it to be rooted and prized, like Medicare and Social Security. Half the country doesn’t even understand it. It will take a generation or two before that happens.
“But if it does take root,” says Mr. Buchanan, “he’ll be in the pantheon.”