Parades and parties are over. As the nation’s capital returns to the routines of governance, everyone wants to know – how will President Obama change in his second term? Will he be a different leader? A better leader?
Presidential leadership exists in a special and charmed section of the universe where substance and style intersect. It’s no secret that the leadership of Obama’s first term has driven his friends and enemies to distraction on both counts. Every now and then, the left wing of the Democratic Party was beside itself, convinced that it was getting loveless Clintonism. And every now and then the party centrists were convinced he was an old-fashioned liberal in high-tech clothing. Among his enemies, especially on Capitol Hill, his detachment from intimate, personal, and direct persuasion from politics allowed them to easily demonize him as some sort of alien elitist whose existence was dangerous to the Republic.
In terms of style, the president’s second term is shaping up to be much better, but not because the president himself has changed. Despite President Lincoln’s recent adulation (Obama was sworn in on Lincoln’s inaugural Bible), Obama is unlikely to lead a team of rivals, making one deal after another with members of the opposing party in order to do so. adopt legislation. Then again, he doesn’t really need to do this. Obama has discovered, perhaps belatedly, that his own vice president can make these deals in a way that Obama himself cannot or does not want. For the third time in Obama’s presidency, Vice President Biden was able to strike a deal on tax matters with Republicans when everyone else in the administration failed. No wonder the Economist called Biden “the McConnell Whisperer” for his ability to succeed with Republican leaders when everyone else has failed.
Basically, however, Obama’s second term faces a variant of the same problem. To understand why, let’s take a step back. It is very difficult to understand what elections really mean. Political scientists have studied the issue to the death and have concluded that in general, it is almost impossible to draw political conclusions from an election. Every now and then the chattering class comes to a consensus on what “the term” is, but usually the most important interpretation of an election is one that exists in the mind of the president himself.
A look back at Obama’s first inaugural address gives us a glimpse of the mandate he had in mind at the time. This speech reveals that President Obama thought he won because he was so clearly not George Bush. At regular intervals, he reminded America of the economic mess he had inherited: âOur economy is severely weakened as a result of greed and irresponsibilityâ¦ without a watchful eye the market can get out of hand. He also reminded America of the two wars he inherited: âPrevious generationsâ¦ understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it allow us to do what we want. In 2008, not being Bush was enough to win the election, but it was not enough to govern. To be fair, it wasn’t all Obama’s fault. The economic crisis hit so hard and so late in the countryside that there was no time to create a response to match the problem. But once in office, Obama and his team misjudged the depth and gravity of the crisis. They have devoted all their energy to health care – a problem orthogonal to a country reeling from a housing crisis and unemployment. At the end of this battle, the president no longer had the political capital to fight climate change, immigration or the need for more stimulus. In 2010, he lost the House, thus further limiting his options.
This time around, even though Obama won a smaller percentage of the electorate than in 2008, he seems to have a little more clarity on where to go. Much of the president’s speech yesterday was a tribute to the millennial generation, who have elected him twice now. Millennials identify with the call for collective action – a touchstone of Obama’s speech – and this generation’s acceptance of same-sex marriage is largely responsible for the president’s most overt endorsement nowadays. Immigration reform and support for taxation of the rich were the other two clear mandates that emerged from the electorate and will guide action in the second term.
But the president’s speech was light on the economic issue, meaning his biggest challenge will be not to repeat the mistakes of the first term by underestimating the pain and suffering of the recession. He cannot assume that just because we are moving in the right direction attention can be turned to other issues, no matter how valid they are. In the middle of his speech yesterday, he explained that “America’s prosperity must rest on the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.” It was his only cry for the large number of Americans who have been devastated by this recession. As a vigorous debate on the economy has begun, the fact is that restoring economic growth during Obama’s second term will be the key factor in cementing his coalition going forward. Slow economic growth nearly did in Obama’s presidency; looking away from this bullet could make in his legacy. He deserved more than one line.