Sunday, January 20, 2013

Is a Second Term Slump Avoidable for President Obama?

The inauguration is coming tomorrow, after perhaps the most eventful and contentious lame-duck session of Congress in our time.  We seem to have collectively erased our memories of the 2012 election, despite the fact that it dominated public discourse for well over a year.  Perhaps the double-whammy of Sandy and Sandy Hook are to blame for the amnesia, but I think the Right has done a pretty successful job of so thoroughly ignoring the results that their defeat is no longer discussed.

Well, whether they like it or not, Barack Obama is starting four more years in the White House tomorrow.  Back in 2009 I would have been ecstatic by this prospect, but now I'm pretty much just exhausted, as happy as I am.  The intransigence and extremism of the opposition party doesn't really give one much hope over the president's prospects for bringing new initiatives forth and getting them turned into law.  I also have the sinking feeling that he will experience the second-term slump that even his most illustrious predecessors suffered from.

After winning a landslide in 1936, FDR went on to get involved in the aborted court-packing scheme and made cuts to his New Deal programs that brought on a recession.  When his second term ended, his political standing was much weakened.  Nixon didn't make it through his second term due to Watergate, and Reagan's second was also bedeviled by scandal, along with his increasing senility.  The economy boomed in Clinton's second term, but he was impeached and almost didn't make it out intact.  Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, crashed and burned with the deterioration of Iraq, Katrina, and judicial scandals.  Sometimes I feel that the pressures of the American presidency are such that it's impossible to sustain a high standard of performance for more than four years.

One reason Obama might be different is that unlike other presidents, he did not have a honeymoon period in his first term.  From the beginning, his political opponents have obstructed and blockaded him at every turn.  This experience has hopefully kept him sharp and his team from getting complacent.  Obama also does not suffer from the deficiencies of other past presidents.  He is younger than Eisenhower and Reagan, and not scandal-prone like Nixon and Clinton.  He is not a cowboy buffoon like W, whose idiocy was not fully exposed to the American public until it was too late.  My main fear is that his intellectual detachment will be more manifest once his fatigue with the job sets in.  It just might get too tiring to force himself to do the work of retail politics that he today seems to approach with disdain.

I think the gun control issue will very quickly define the nature of his second term.  For the first time since the early 1990s, there appears to be a groundswell of support for gun control, an issue Obama seemed happy to completely avoid to this point.  That of course never stopped the gun nuts from spinning paranoid fantasies about Obama's true intentions.  They went out and bought guns and ammo by the barrel-full when he was elected in anticipation of new gun control laws that never came.  For his first four years, Obama seemed to think that even raising the gun issue was out of the question.

Current events certainly now make the gun nuts feel as if their fever dreams were right all along.  By taking on the NRA and the hordes of wingnut "patriots," Obama is doing political combat with the faction of the Right that seems to hate and fear him the most.  If he can get his legislation passed, this would be a political de-pantsing of epic proportions, and would clearly send a signal that the president will be in the driver's seat for his second term.  Defeating one of Washington's most powerful and fearsome special interests, a lobby that has scared Democrats from even talking about guns, would give Obama the kind of political mojo he needs to get through his term without a slump.  I could even see the Republicans giving way on the debt ceiling issue in this case, since they would finally have to acknowledge his position of power.

If the president is unable to get much done on gun control, it will greatly embolden those who despise him the most.  He will have spent much political capital on a losing issue, and will most likely spend the rest of his term playing defense.  A similar thing happened to W, who floated the idea of Social Security privatization at the start of his second term, only to have it smacked down faster than my 18-year old self was when trying to talk to members of the opposite sex.  By tackling a brand new issue and a powerful lobby in the bargain, Obama is taking a huge risk, even despite the public's horrified reaction to Sandy Hook.

Mark my words, as goes the gun issue, so goes Obama's second term.

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