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Beyond Obama's Second Term Blues

Those who never voted for Barack Obama when he ran for President in 2008 or when he sought reelection in 2012 will conclude that Obama’s current second-term blues are just a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.” They never liked him and may actually rejoice in his misfortunes. All of the Republicans’ post-2012 election defeat soul-searching has since given way to more of the polarization and the dysfunctionality associated with the political gridlock of recent years. 

Important elements of Obama’s second term agenda—gun control, climate change and immigration reform—appear to be in trouble.  Meanwhile, events in Syria—mired in its two-year sectarian civil war—have led a reluctant U.S. president to arm the different factions associated with the rebel forces against dictator Bashar al-Assad.  Instability is spreading throughout the Middle East, leading some observers to question the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Add to this context, the ongoing conflict over the Benghazi talking points, skepticism of the Internal Revenue Service decision to target Tea Party groups, and the controversy surrounding National Security Agency and its surveillance programs, and  a growing perception emerges that Obama might have lost control of his agenda at a crucial period in a second term.  We are often reminded of scarred second-term administrations since 1960—Johnson (Vietnam), Nixon (Watergate), Reagan (Iran-Contra), Clinton (Lewinsky scandal/impeachment), Bush (Hurricane Katrina/ financial meltdown).

The past two months have seen the Obama Administration go from alleged scandals, to defeat on key proposals—such as gun control—to controversy about privacy and security.  Considering that the mid-term elections are but 18 months away and the 2016 presidential stakes will begin shortly after, time does not seem to favor the president.

Yet, despite this somber picture, many of Obama’s problems have to do with the normal course of events in any political mandate. Governing is not a picnic in the park and it is full of surprises and obstacles. Obama certainly understands from his first term that the Republicans will not make his life easier in a second term. But crisis management is very much a part of his job.

The key priorities of any second-term president remain to consolidate the achievements of the first term, to initiate and accelerate new policy initiatives in the early part of the second term, and to prepare to leave the country in better shape than it was when he first took office

In a press conference during his first term, Obama pointedly told journalists that his time cycle was different from that of the media.  He emphasized that he had to focus on issues beyond the next media deadline.  He argued that economic growth, national security, defending U.S. interests abroad, keeping the homeland safe, and promoting and protecting the economic security of the citizens are the president’s objectives.

While first-term successes are often etched in landmark legislation, second-term presidential achievements tend to go beyond merely passing laws.  Second terms are based on setting a direction for a better future. When he will near the end of his mandate in 2016, the question will inevitably become: Is America better and stronger because of President Barack Obama?

Historians will eventually judge how Obama fares compared to his predecessors.  However, the current state of the U.S. economy remains on a steady—though unspectacular—growth cycle since the spring of 2010. And the financial sector has rebounded from the Bush years. The stock market is soaring and setting records. Obama’s health care reform (Obamacare),while not hugely popular, is following its course to full implementation in 2014, thereby bringing greater economic security to millions of uninsured Americans. The homeland has stayed generally safe in a dangerous and challenging world. 

The Obama Administration has also wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The budget deficit is being reduced and economic indicators on jobs and housing are positive, while the path to greater energy self-sufficiency is becoming clearer and will be a determining factor in future economic progress in the manufacturing sector. So the long-term prospects are not as bleak as his opponents portray them to be.

To his credit, the president has shown resolve through all the recent controversies and he has been cautious to avoid becoming engulfed in another war in the Middle East. Above all, he has proven to be a thoughtful leader—not given to impulsive decisions and actions, or the flavor of the day. He is, as he likes to say, governing beyond the next news cycle. Well he should. Despite the current second-term blues, President Obama is doing just what he was re-elected to do on November 2, 2012—his job. At the end of the day, he will be judged by how well he does it.

*John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Barack Obama, United States

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