President Obama may have slightly boosted his reelection chances by outmaneuvering the Republicans on the payroll-tax-cut extension. But after a year of Beltway paralysis, that deal simply preserves the status quo for a mere two months—the latest sign of the capital’s utter dysfunction.
So is there any reason to believe that Obama would fare better in a second term?
More of the same is not appealing. Yet for Obama to govern with any degree of success, he would need either a big electoral upset—with Democrats regaining the House and maintaining a nominal hold on the Senate—or a chastened Republican Party, newly open to cooperation and willing to set aside the all-or-nothing brinkmanship that has defined its strategy. The prospect of four more years of gridlock while Obama looks on from the sidelines will hardly energize voters already disappointed by the president’s performance. For now, Obama is benefiting by standing apart from an institution whose approval rating is 11 percent, but mastering the legislative process is a big part of the job of being president, and while Obama squeezed major legislation through Congress in his first two years, this last year has been a disaster all around.
“Unless Democrats win a big victory in Congress, it’s hard to see how a second term would be any better,” says Jack Pitney, an American-government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Second terms never are.” Pitney was a congressional staffer on the Republican side in 1985, and finds the aftermath of President Reagan’s reelection instructive. “Even though Reagan had won a huge mandate (carrying 49 states), it didn’t translate into much legislative success, with the important exception of tax reform.” Reagan faced a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, a mirror image of the party divisions that frustrate Obama today.
Obama is more likely to win in a squeaker than with a Reagan-sized mandate. “You might say if the election of 2008 didn’t persuade Republicans to go along with the majority, why would a narrow Obama victory in 2012 have a better effect?” asks William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. If the president couldn’t quell fractious lawmakers when he had a 70 percent approval rating and a big electoral mandate, why would he be any more effective in dealing with Congress after a hard-fought reelection campaign in which the GOP has a better than even chance to capture control of the Senate, and keep its hold on the House?
Yet in politics, as in life, things rarely turn out as predicted. Unless a major backlash against the GOP restores Democratic primacy in the House and maintains the Democratic Senate, a unified Republican Congress might not be such a bad thing from Obama’s perspective, says Galston. “They would be co-owners of the government, and if they want to get the White House [in 2016] they’ve got to persuade the people they can say yes as well as no.” Given a truly divided government, Galston argues there could be greater cooperation between the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress. That would echo the Clinton presidency when the GOP Congress, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, served up welfare reform and a balanced budget for Clinton to sign.
There is not much incentive now for Obama to be more hands-on with Congress, but in a second term he might want to reconsider his approach. Pietro Nivola, a scholar at Brookings’ Governance Studies Program, compares Obama’s leadership with Woodrow Wilson, another “professor president” with a background as an intellectual who made the transition from academia to politics. Wilson, like Obama, took office after his party had won two back-to-back elections, only to be repudiated in the midterm, with Democrats losing dozens of House seats and, two years later, the majority.
The difference between the two men, says Nivola, is that Wilson didn’t fall victim to his own high expectations the way Obama has. Wilson was much more parsimonious, campaigning on a very short list: banking reform, knocking down protectionism, and a tougher approach to antitrust. Obama promised the moon, and while he gets accused of being vague (“hope and change”), his campaign document, “A Blueprint for Change,” is a very long list of things he promised to do, with some, like changing the culture in Washington, proving intractable.
Wilson laid down clear markers before every piece of legislation, and he spent time on Capitol Hill in an office set aside for him. “He was in their faces,” says Galston. An avowed Anglophile, Wilson didn’t bother wooing the other party. The Democrats had won with big margins and Wilson operated more like a prime minister, preferring to work with his own party. Obama also won with big margins, but the Brookings study concludes he was overly deferential to Congress, behaving more like “a stakeholder mediating at arm’s length than the chief engineer of the policies he sought.”
Obama spent much of his first two years in a futile bid for bipartisanship, asserting himself only at the eleventh hour to rescue legislation, as he did with the health-care bill, while mostly leaving the negotiations to emissaries he would dispatch to Capitol Hill “as though some pearl of legislation might form around them,” says Galston.
There won’t be a “Blueprint for Change” heralding a second Obama term. Modesty will be in order as he promises to secure gains and finish the job he started. Whether he will approach Congress differently will depend on the circumstances, and his own reflection on what went right, and what went wrong. A lame-duck session after the election could produce notable results and a bipartisan deal just like the last one, with the expiring Bush tax cuts again at center stage.
Looking into his crystal ball, Nivola says Obama would not want to go down in history as the president who continued to run up the debt, so a second-term priority would be the grand bargain that eluded him earlier this year. Securing the implementation of health-care reform and reining in Medicare spending would be another priority. Immigration reform would be high up there as well, especially if Hispanics turn out for him. “He would feel some obligation to deliver for them,” says Nivola.
Wilson’s second term, beset by illness and foreign-policy setbacks, offers no guidelines. But the former president was onto something, Nivola concludes, “that citizens need to know that partisan politics are not an abnormality but a fact of life in a vibrant democratic polity.” If what we’re seeing is the new normal, fine, as long as the excesses of partisanship give way at some point to the needs of the citizenry, a premise that House Republicans are currently testing.
We’ve seen these battles occur with equal intensity within the parties, as the Republican split over the payroll tax made clear. Pitney recalls Gingrich denouncing “the perfectionist caucus” in the GOP in 1998. The House GOP’s surrender in the payroll-tax fight may not signal a sea change in congressional relations with the White House, but House Republicans might not be so eager for confrontation over the coming year, says Pitney: “They looked in the mirror and saw Grinch.”