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Making the best of the second term

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WASHINGTON -- Here are two realities about second presidential terms: They aren't cursed, as legend has it, and they are rarely better than first ones.

As Barack Obama the 17th president was inaugurated Monday for a second time, historians offered useful context. "Obama has read the literature and understands overreach," says Michael Beschloss, one of the more than half-dozen scholars who recently had dinner with the president. "This puts him one step ahead of most" re-elected presidents.

That sentiment contrasts with the mood of many Democrats these days. In conversations with a dozen Democratic politicians, with a few exceptions, there is a pervasive pessimism about the next several years. Almost all requested anonymity, not out of fear, they say, but to avoid giving solace to Republicans.

The political environment, they say, is as poisonous as it ever was. It isn't much of an exaggeration to say that when most House Republicans wake up, their first thought is, "How can we stick it to Obama today?"

The fiscal struggles won't be settled in the next few months; more likely they'll be prolonged through the year, crowding out most other issues, with the possible exceptions of immigration and gun violence legislation.

The president shows few signs of reaching out or broadening his horizon. If anything, Capitol Hill Democrats say, the inner circle is more closed. Obama, most recently at a news conference last week, deprecates the role of relationships in politics; he's dismissive of the notion that all would be better if he would just drink whiskey with lawmakers, as Lyndon Johnson did.

He's right. Few will shift policy positions because of a good scotch or bourbon. Yet his critics also are right when they point out that every successful president has forged crucial political relationships.

Some conditions are beyond a president's control to influence. Saturation news coverage takes more of a toll in a second term. "One of the greatest threats to the modern presidency is overexposure," the historian Richard Norton Smith says. "There will be Obama fatigue."

Then there's the supposed second-term curse: Johnson and the Vietnam War; Richard Nixon and Watergate; Bill Clinton and impeachment; George W. Bush and the Hurricane Katrina debacle.

Robert W. Merry, who has written about how presidents are evaluated, suggests "it's almost impossible to find a president who had a second term better than his first."

Presidents usually win re-election because they had a reasonably successful first term; that, some experts point out, distorts any comparisons, a state of affairs that became apparent with one of the first presidential re-elections: that of Thomas Jefferson in 1804.

"You can't buy Louisiana every term," Norton Smith says. "That doesn't mean there can't be accomplishments."

Ronald Reagan, in his second term, won sweeping tax reform and a historical arms-reduction treaty with the Soviet Union. Even some administrations known for conspicuous failings look better with perspective.

Franklin Roosevelt botched the economic recovery and tried to pack the Supreme Court in the late 1930s. He also, subtly, prepared the United States for the Second World War, a bigger achievement. Dwight Eisenhower's party was clobbered in congressional elections and he was embarrassed when a spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. He also sent federal troops to integrate the schools in Little Rock, Ark., a seminal moment. Clinton's second term produced few tangible achievements, though he continued to reposition the Democratic Party.

Today, the second-term optimists among Democrats say the president is contending with a much stronger and stable economy than the one he inherited four years ago. They see a more self-assured chief executive. One outside operative contrasts a session he had with Obama four years ago with one a few weeks ago, saying the president is a different man, more confident, clearer on what he wants to do.

Obama no longer harbours illusions, these Democrats believe, about Republican congressional leaders. He's willing, even eager, for combat. Republicans, whose standing with the public continues its free fall, are one of Obama's greatest assets.

Whatever the political limitations, historians say Obama needs to think big.

"He has a chance to explain where America ought to be in 10 or 20 years," says H.W. Brands of the University of Texas, who also attended the scholars' dinner with the president. "He can rise above everyday politics and speak to history. Lincoln did it in 1865; FDR in 1937. Now it's Obama's chance."

Some Democrats say the president would be able to make a more compelling case if his inner circle weren't so insular. The Team of Rivals of the early first term, when the president brought in diverse voices, has turned into the Band of Brothers, with a premium on personal loyalty. Top White House aides have let it be known that they will be making more personnel and policy decisions in the economics and foreign policy arenas.

And while Obama may appreciate the dangers of second-term overreach, he's quick to claim a mandate on issues, an assertion with a dubious historical resonance.

"Presidents should erase the word 'mandate' from their vocabulary," Norton Smith says. "At best, it's treacherous."

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

-- Bloomberg News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2013 A11

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