In 2010, President Obama told Diane Swayer on ABC he’d “rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” Was he really good in his first term? What do you think the chances are that we’ll look back and say he was a mediocre two-term president?
Andy Rudalevige: Presidents have to talk about their willingness to be defeated to advance their principles, but in fact they’re pretty aware their legacy hinges on the fact that they have won approval from the American people for a second term. Whether we’ll look back on President Obama’s two terms and think, well, he should have stuck with one, I suspect not. But a lot will depend on whether he can make a down payment on the initiatives he’s talked about for his second term.
His first term was obviously very controversial; his 2008 campaign persona placed him above partisanship, able to pull the country together by sheer force of his likability, and obviously that didn’t happen. On the other hand, the first two years of his term were very important in terms of passing large legislative enactments. How those will turn out, especially the healthcare law, we don’t know yet. That will have something to do with how his legacy is assessed as well. Certainly in terms of making an consequential impact on the American polity, his first term succeeded in that.
President Obama got a massive stimulus package through Congress, an historic health care law through Congress, he got fairly extensive regulations of the financial sector through Congress, two Supreme court justices confirmed, the START treaty with Russia ratified, Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell repealed, a big overhaul of how student loans are implemented and funded, big shifts in education policy with regards to his Race to the Top initiative, so there’s certainly a very substantive first term, really first two years. Could he have gotten more? I’m not so sure.
Presidents often say, when we lost support it’s because we didn’t communicate well, it’s not because no one liked our policies. We don’t communicate properly. President Obama said that himself, especially after the midterm elections. That said, he did seem disengaged at certain times from the responsibility of the president to work on educating the public on what he wants to do, why he wants to do it, and why the various things he’s pushing are important. There was a certain assumption in the administration early on that it would be self-evident why all these things would be important, yet it wasn’t necessarily self-evident why billions of dollars had to go to General Motors or some of the folks on Wall Street, who in the public mind had created this very problem. That left a vacuum and suddenly the president found himself being defined as a crazy socialist.
By the time we got through the 2012 election, though, his approval ratings in the exit polls were back up to 54%. So there’s still a slim but solid majority of Americans who think, yeah, he seems to be a good guy, he’s trying. I think the fundamentals of the campaign worked out more or less evenly. You had an incumbent; you had a middling economy at best. You had an opponent who was never quite able to get traction on Obama’s record in the way that he wanted. And so you wind up with 51% of the national vote. Not really a mandate. And so I do think it’ll be a snarly four years.. As crazy as the rhetoric gets, a lot of the underlying ideas on both sides are not crazy, and how we work toward compromise in a system that is not currently working to produce compromise institutionally is going to be the big challenge.
Janet Martin: President Obama was a good first-term president; especially given the cards he was dealt. Presidents don’t get to pick and choose their crises.
He faced a nation in an economic crisis of proportions not seen since the Great Depression; the country was involved in two wars — Iraq and Afghanistan; and confidence in the future was not very high on the part of the American public. The cost of waging two wars in the course of a decade — Iraq and Afghanistan — has created an enormous drain on the Treasury. Since Obama has taken office, the U.S. has been restrained in adding new military endeavors. But the costs of wars that have been ongoing for over a decade have set in place a financial problem.
In addition, while he faced a Democratic Congress, in control of both the House and Senate during his first two years in office, he also entered the White House at a time when there was an intense polarization in politics, with members of the House and Senate split along partisan lines in a way in which few moderates remained in either party. Extreme partisans of both the Republican and Democratic Party have been able to prevent the political middle from prevailing. The art of compromise was lost, along with the moderates of each party — conservative Democrats and moderate to liberal Republicans.
President Obama has had to face a growing national debt, and a Congress unwilling to raise the debt ceiling, in spite of being a Democrat who can hardly be labeled a “tax and spend liberal.” Fiscal issues have come to dominate his presidency.
President Obama’s party lost control of the House to the Republican Party with the rise of the Tea Party in the 2010 elections. As has been demonstrated in the discussions of the past two years, the House is crucial in any plans to reduce the deficit, or change the tax code. The growing national debt, and annual deficits are not sustainable. The President has tried to tackle the debt both with spending cuts as well as with revisions in the tax code.
The Constitution requires that the House take the initiative in any legislative moves to raise revenue. And the House is controlled by majority rule. These are obstacles that President Obama has not had much success in confronting. He has made efforts to work with Speaker Boehner. But the electoral calendar works against Boehner acting too independently of his Republican base in the House. Republican members of the House and Senate both fear primary challenges, and with all Members of the House facing reelection every two years, there is a different timetable for the House to take action than is seen by the President.
I see the major problem in the Obama Presidency as a failure to take the leadership role that Congress and the American public have come to expect of a President. President Obama often talks about “we” which while inclusive, is not the appropriate tone to take in leading. The President has limited powers in the Constitution, and so the President has to make use of the powers available. While it is true that the House has to act in order to bring about changes in the tax code, or that Congress must meet its obligations in raising the debt ceiling in order to meet the spending decisions Congress has already authorized, it is also true that the President, by virtue of a Press Conference, or speech to the nation, can rally the public behind his actions.
As a presidency scholar, I can’t help but be frustrated with a President who fails to seize the opportunity to claim a mandate and act strongly to move the country forward. As a case in point, take one of his top agenda items in his second term: immigration reform. In his press conference of January 14th, Obama talked about the need to get the support of the public behind immigration reform. Obama observed that “whether or not we get immigration reform done — all that’s going to be determined largely by where the respective parties stand on policy, and maybe most importantly, the attitude of the American people. If the American people feel strongly about these issues and they push hard, and they reward or don’t reward members of Congress with their votes…” As I listened to the press conference I couldn’t help but want to say to the President: you have the mandate to lead in this regard. The public has rewarded you with their votes. Given the action taken by your Secretary of Homeland Security last summer, ending deportation of those individuals who had crossed the border illegally as children and met certain criteria, you had won over 70% of the Latino vote.
However, I don’t think that we will ever look back and assess Obama’s presidency as a failure. He has already achieved success in areas that eluded his predecessors: finding and killing Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, and setting in motion through federal legislation a health care plan that is bringing about major change in coverage, and health care delivery. In addition, at a time when the country faced its most severe economic crisis, Obama’s economic stimulus plan moved the country out of recession, and contributed to a decrease in the unemployment rate.
To take Health Care as a case study, Obama was successful in his first two years in getting the Affordable Care Health Care Act passed. And it survived a Supreme Court challenge with Chief Justice John Roberts ruling the Act constitutional. The sweeping changes predicted with this act will bring about the changes talked about by Democratic Presidents since Harry Truman was in the White House. As Medicare became a lasting legacy of the Johnson presidency, this too will be a lasting legacy of the Obama administration. But, unlike Medicare, in which the federal government provided assistance to cover care, the Affordable Care Act is presenting enormous burdens and challenges for the states. And President Obama is not a former governor as were his predecessors who also served two terms, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan, and so lacks an empathy with the nation’s governors and the fiscal shortfalls many are facing.