Obama's Second-Term Crisis

David Freedlander asks the experts for their worst-case scenarios.

Jim Watson/Getty

Imagine if in January 2009, amidst all the hoopla of Barack Obama’s first inauguration, some wiser and cooler head had been able to bend the president’s ear.

“Hey, Mr. President—your projections on the unemployment rate are far, far too rosy. Start focusing on bringing that number down, right now, before people get frustrated with the pace of the recovery.”

Or, “Hey, Mr. President—word to the wise. Those Republicans in Congress aren’t now or ever going to want to compromise with you. They have nearly said as much. Stop trying. There is this movement afoot called the Tea Party, and it will soon sweep the nation.”

Or, “Hey, Mr. President—there are far too many high-powered weapons out on the streets. I know it’s not your fault, and it seems like there isn’t much you can do about it, but it is an immense tragedy waiting to happen.”

No one’s crystal ball is all that clear—hardly anyone, for example, could have predicted that Gen. David Petraeus would resign in disgrace, or that the president would have to spend valuable time in 2011 confirming that he was in fact born in the United States. But viewed from the angle of hindsight, a number of the pitfalls that befell Obama in his first term were not entirely unpredictable. Passing health-care reform was never going to be easy, nor was closing Guantánamo Bay. A closer look at BP’s safety record could have gone a long way toward heading off the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. North Korea was never going to turn into Ancient Athens, and the revolutions in the Middle East were destined to run into trouble.

And so now, with hope for the new president’s term high, especially among Democrats, we asked some of the top public-policy experts in the land to stare down the horizon and see what troubles could befall the second Obama administration.

William Galston, Brookings Institution

I think it almost may be quite likely that there could be a serious military confrontation in East Asia. There are jurisdictional and boundary disputes in many places—what belongs to whom, what are national waters versus international waters, what is the relationship between de facto post–World War II status, which many of these disputed areas are still in, and a more final agreement that might finally be agreeable to all sides. A lot of this stuff has been out there for decades, but the rise of China has created a new situation where, somewhat defensively, other nations are asserting their own rights against a longstanding status quo. We have multiple guarantees to multiple parties in the area. These little confrontations about unoccupied islands can bubble up. China’s map about where their territorial waters extend are different than anyone else’s. The president said he wanted to “pivot to Asia,” and he may be called upon to do that sooner than he expects.

Elaine Kamarck, former Clinton administration official

There doesn’t seem to me to be enough attention to the need for growth in this economy. This is still a pretty fragile economy, and without growth the president won’t be able to do all of the stuff he was elected to do. You have a middle class still reeling from this, and while that is beginning to turn around, it is going to take a while for people to get back to where they were. One fears that the growth agenda will be pushed aside in favor of these other worthy ideals, but it can’t be. If the economy doesn’t improve, what hope is there for something like immigration reform?

Julia Gordon, Center for American Progress

When we are done with the refi boom, we are going to find out that regular families are not getting mortgages anymore. Right now the health of the housing market or the housing recovery is due to a lot of the refi business, and a lot of investor purchases or cash purchases. There is not a lot of first-time home buying going on out there and particularly not a lot of FHA. And one has to assume those two things will eventually slow down and then we will see what the real mortgage market looks like. The fact that we are in a recovery is in no small part because we are in a housing recovery. If it slows, you won’t see new housing starts, and you won’t see a lot of the money that goes into the economy through the housing business.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Greg Anrig, the Century Foundation

The implementation of the Affordable Care Act. That is such a decentralized undertaking. It is largely in the hands of the states about how it plays out. It will be tough for the general public to have a sense of when comes in in full. Will it be a total success or a total fiasco? Because it is the central accomplishment he had during his first term, it is essential that the implementation go well. There is a lot of scrambling going on behind the scenes right now, and it remains to be seen how that goes.

Irene S. Rubin, professor emeritus of public administration at Northern Illinois University and author of Running in the Red: The Political Dynamics of Urban Fiscal Stress

Cuts to the public sector, to pensions, and frozen pay, hurting the ability of the public sector to compete with the private sector for highly skilled jobs, and leading to the erosion of government capability. How quickly or slowly this will happen is not clear, nor is it clear when the events that will show up these shortages in numbers and skills will occur. But watch for them.

Clark S. Judge, speechwriter in the Reagan White House

They have been saying that al Qaeda has been defeated. That was the formulation—General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead. Both of those are big risk points. Clearly something is going on with al Qaeda. It is moving in Mali; it apparently staged this raid in Algeria. We are hearing about others farther to the east. They are clearly on the move. They are in Syria. I think that whole narrative could blow up by September. So your question if you are in the White House is how do we keep it from blowing up, and if it does blow up how do we handle it. They have been advertising that they are out of the region, so they may have to backpedal on that, and these guys aren’t good at backpedalling.

David Koelsch, director of University of Detroit Mercy’s Immigration Law Clinic

For his immigration agenda, there are plenty of Willie Hortons out there. All it takes is one or two illegal immigrants to commit a heinous crime and everything gets shot to hell. It doesn’t take much. People will sensationalize things and be like, “Hell no.” Somebody comes across the border and kills a rancher and it will be like, “What’s the point?” There is a timing question, too. We get to the August recess, and things get pretty tough. Governors and lawmakers start to have their own states to worry about. He’s got about a seven-month window. That is not a lot of time to market this.

David Mark, Politix

(1) Obama is feeling emboldened by the reelection yet many of his positions are just too liberal for the American public. He is going to have to veer away from the Democrat Party line and stay in touch with the population’s consensus if he is going to succeed. (2) The second-term blues. Second-term presidents usually experience a talent drain around this time, and it can impact their ability to get things done. (3) On the campaign trail, Obama didn’t offer many specifics this time around. He is going to have to work hard not to flail around aimlessly, following the lead of congressional Democrats. He needs to create his own, focused agenda.

James M. Acton, senior associate, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

If Kim Jong-un is anything like his father, he hates being ignored. So, while President Obama would almost certainly settle for four years of frozen but uneventful relations with North Korea, he is highly likely to have to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear test at some point in his second term. North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon twice before—in October 2006 and May 2009. Over this time period, Pyongyang has also made steady if slow progress in developing its delivery systems. While North Korea probably still lacks the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the continental United States using a missile, it did make a significant step toward this goal when, only last month, it successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in the costume of a satellite launcher. A third test will, therefore, further spook nervous allies and create a new sense of vulnerability among Americans. Responding to the test will require a presidential balancing act. The president will want a response by the United Nations Security Council that is robust enough to reinforce the evolving precedent that the international community will impose real costs on nuclear testers. But the response must not be so severe that it is vetoed by China or met with North Korea’s own counter-response. The president will also have to reassure nervous allies and U.S. citizens that they are well defended—but, at the same time, he must not oversell the United States' ability to deter or defeat North Korean provocations or else he will risk looking powerless in the future.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania

Food shortages in unexpected locations in U.S. and abroad and associated price increases tied to unprecedented variability in weather; regulatory conflicts tied to hydro-fracking; and at some point in next decade or two, a dirty bomb released or a bio attack on U.S. or country allied with the U.S.

Matthew Rojansky, deputy director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

U.S.-Russia relations have hit a new low as the Kremlin has cracked down on liberal protesters, booted USAID from Russia, and ended Nunn-Lugar nonproliferation cooperation, while U.S. sanctions against top Russian officials and businesspeople over human-rights abuses has provoked a new round of anti-Americanism from Moscow. In this environment, minor provocations on Russia's post-Soviet periphery could spiral quickly into full-scale East-West crises. Russia seeks to press Ukraine, Moldova, and perhaps even Georgia, into its single economic zone, a step seen as incompatible with EU and NATO membership and opposed by Brussels and Washington. But movement in either direction by these governments is likely to provoke domestic unrest and raise the specter of Russia's ultimate nightmare, a new round of "colored revolutions" in its neighborhood. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides are heavily armed and have raised a new generation with little interest in compromise. Renewed fighting in the South Caucasus will quickly force Russia, Turkey, and likely the U.S. to become involved, as would a major terror attack in the run-up to next year's Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi. With the Russians still deeply skeptical about the purposes of any future U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, ethnic violence or political unrest like that in Uzbekistan in 2005 or Kyrgyzstan in 2010 might compel Russia to go in under Collective Security Treaty Organization auspices and demand the Americans get out.

Nancy La Vigne, director, Justice Policy Center, Urban Institute

Growth of the federal prison population. If you look at trends on the state level, the states are getting smart, and have implemented a number of reforms to cut down the prison population while enhancing public safety. This is welcome reform after years of prison construction that has had no meaningful impact on recidivism rates, with nearly two thirds of released prisoners returning to custody. At the federal level, we are continuing to get a really bad return on our criminal justice investment. If you look at the projections, in just a few years incarceration will take up 30 percent of the Department of Justice's budget. The federal government should be a leader on this issue and instead they aren't even following the good examples set by the states. This inaction puts pressures on the federal budget, and means more and more resources are devoted to incarceration and less to other criminal justice priorities.

Gregory Weiner, assistant professor of political science at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.

I think the biggest pitfall the administration is likely to face is that the largely unnoticed but substantial Republican successes in state legislative races over the past couple of decades have resulted in districts being drawn so as virtually to assure a substantial plurality—always near to a majority—in the House that is emphatically opposed to the president's legislative program. Indeed, not only will this plurality pay no political price for opposing it, it will often pay a price for compromising in its opposition to it. I see no appetite in the House for any of the major priorities President Obama suggested in his inaugural. Because of the way districts are drawn, this is a structural issue, not just a passing political trend, and it will pose a serious challenge that will require all the president's political skills and capital to overcome.

Pippa Norris, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Electoral integrity. In his inaugural address, President Obama said, ”Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” This reflects an important recognition that one of the oldest democracies in the world is failing in one of its most basic tasks: facilitating an efficient process for casting ballots. But the problems go deeper than simply long lines in polling places. The attempts by several partisan officials to suppress voter rights in the spurious claim of preventing potential voter fraud would be utterly unacceptable in younger democracies as diverse as Ghana, Latvia, and Uruguay. These attempts were usually overturned fairly late in the process by the courts, but they should never have occurred in the first place. The underlying problem—which needs to be urgently addressed—concerns the excessive fragmentation and partisanship of electoral administration in the United States. This combination allows overzealous party officials to determine local voting rights and, equally problematic, to gerrymander district boundaries. Until we tackle the lack of impartiality, professionalization, and accountability of electoral administration, by strengthening a nationwide electoral commission, these problems will continue to occur.

John Hudak, fellow in governance studies, Brookings

As the president accepts the resignations of some of his top lieutenants in the cabinet, the White House and especially the Office of Presidential Personnel will expend tremendous effort in finding qualified, suitable successors. Surely, the president and his staff have prepared for the current process for months. However, this process must be considered a longer-term endeavor—a stark change from the first term. It is incumbent upon the president and his staff not only to be prepared for more frequent vacancies (a strategy every capable White House employs), but they must have an interim strategy. How the president deals with sudden, extended, and/or multiple vacancies at the cabinet and sub-cabinet levels will profoundly affect his ability to administer and influence policy. During the president’s first term, he was spared such difficulty—at least at the highest levels of his administration—as he oversaw one of the most stable cabinets since Franklin Pierce served four years without a single change. History suggests that second-term cabinets see frequent departures, particularly as the term approaches its conclusion. As a result, the president must expect the players in his second term to be more temporary than those in the first. What he cannot do is allow such instability to affect his policies and his power.