President Barack Obama's first two weeks since winning reelection show just how quickly second terms can veer off course.
Between the David Petraeus scandal, the congressional Republicans' calls for a "Watergate-style" probe into the Benghazi attack and the violence in Gaza that threatens to escalate into full-scale war, public attention already has been diverted from Obama's big goals for his next four years -- even from urgent negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff and from a possible opening for compromise on immigration reform.
This is a story that previous two-term presidents know well: four more years to reach high and cement a legacy, but also four more years for potential missteps and devastating external events to sidetrack an administration.
"I'm more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms," Obama said last week during his first post-election news conference. "We are very cautious about that."
There's a lot of literature to get familiar with -- and more than enough lessons even aside from the abuses of power that led to Richard Nixon's resignation. The history of second terms has divided the presidential failures from the defining historical figures Obama longs to join.
"Even though people talk about second-term curses and think about Clinton and Monica or FDR and court-packing or Bush and Social Security privatization, the most important thing to know about a second term is we have very few presidents who are considered great who didn't have a second term," said Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian who's friendly with Obama. "Reagan's place in history was in part created in that second term, with the Soviet Union and taxes. If Lincoln hadn't had a second term, he wouldn't have won the Civil War. If [Franklin] Roosevelt hadn't had a second term, he'd be remembered as the president who didn't end the Depression."
Obama survived many of the challenges in his first term that other presidents faced in their second terms. He started with an economic downturn, and now signs point to a recovery. He pushed through several signature pieces of legislation and survived the fights in Congress and the Supreme Court over the law that's most associated with him. He's already seen his agenda rejected in the midterms and his party lose faith in him -- and get it back.
So far, Obama appears to be taking the most care not to follow the example of George W. Bush, whose second term began to crumple as soon as he declared that he'd earned "political capital, and now I intend to spend it." Bush's Social Security privatization was dead on arrival, and Republicans in Congress weren't much interested in immigration reform, either.
The result: Disenchanted Republicans joined Democrats in opposing Harriet Miers's nomination for the Supreme Court. Miers lasted only three weeks before she withdrew. Bush's agenda hadn't just gotten stuck. It had been rejected.
There's a simple lesson here, according to veterans of past administrations and presidential historians: Having political allies control Congress doesn't mean that there's necessarily any interest in the White House agenda, and just taking the oath of office a second time doesn't provide any presidential superpowers. And unlike Bush, Obama is facing a House controlled by the opposite party -- Republicans who've beaten him before, and who can play a longer political game than the president can afford to.
So far, Obama has avoided setting many concrete, long-term goals. That includes major foreign policy objectives that have defined previous second terms and big topics such as tackling climate change -- the kind of ambitious goal that a second-term president who's popular around the world might seize the lead on. While Obama spoke at length about climate change during his news conference last week, he made no specific promises or demands.
Carefully avoiding the words that got Bush into trouble eight years ago, Obama told reporters that his only mandate from the election is "just work really hard to see if you can help us get ahead -- because we're working really hard out here and we're still struggling, a lot of us."
But to James Jones, who served as chief of staff for President Lyndon B. Johnson, the margin Obama beat Romney by is more than enough for a mandate, which he hopes the president will be bold enough to exercise -- particularly in revamping his relationship with Congress.
"It's capital in the bank and you spend it," Jones said. "You don't hoard it."
That often gets harder as a second term ticks away. The president's got his eyes on history, while representatives and senators are looking at their next race -- or the next presidential election. Ronald Reagan's approach was to keep his dealings with Congress narrow, staying focused on tax reform. And when Bush abandoned his more ambitious agenda, he was able to strengthen many of the changes to homeland security that he'd put in place during his first term.
Obama faces a similar situation with Obamacare. Fixes, adjustments and enhancements are all expected to be priorities for the White House as the reforms are enacted, and the president will have to balance cementing that major part of his legacy against what he'd need to do in Congress to push through other major objectives.
"Reagan history shows that when you don't go for a huge agenda, you go for particulars, it is possible to get things done," said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. "Bush history shows that you can, even with other problems, solidify the changes you've made."
Bill Clinton accomplished some of that himself. But pinpointing the biggest problem Clinton faced in his second term takes just one word: impeachment.
There's another clear lesson here for the Obama White House: Don't underestimate the derailing power of a scandal and don't dismiss how much damage can be done when a president loses the public's trust. Clinton was able to channel his own strong second-term victory in 1996 into the deal that produced the first balanced budget, but relations with Congress were so poisoned that Republicans impeached Clinton mostly to parade his sins on the Senate floor.
Like the debt and Iraq War fatigue that eventually enveloped the Bush administration, Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky had its roots in his first term. But as the Reagan administration discovered with the Iran-Contra affair, there's more than enough time in a second term for a scandal to start, fester and explode.
Then there are the natural disasters that require a firm government response: Bush's second term will be forever defined by the bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina. Obama avoided similar problems from Hurricane Sandy, but he's already seen his White House pulled into a made-for-soap-opera scandal with Petraeus and faced continuing questions about the intelligence surrounding Benghazi.
But the real looming problems beyond his control are international: the violence in Gaza, Iran's nuclear pursuit and the continuing fallout from the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere. Obama could be stuck on the sidelines of a multi-front Middle East war that comes to define his presidency.
There's only so much Obama can do to prepare. But presidential historians say that only intensifies the need for him to move quickly and firmly to take control of his own fate -- and, they warn, a president can easily do too little if he's always looking over his shoulder at the portraits of his predecessors and trying to avoid their mistakes.
Instead, they recommend that Obama model himself on the second terms of two presidents he's attached himself to before: Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan.
Roosevelt, toured the country to pressure Congress to pass massive domestic reforms, like the continuing campaign that Obama promised as he finished this year's election. Roosevelt also took an increasingly strong leadership role in global affairs, much like the one many believe Obama wants to take. Reagan's magnetism rallied the country behind agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev -- producing the kind of radical realignment of U.S.-Soviet relations that Obama seems to now be seeking with Asia -- and led to the 1986 tax reforms that Obama would like to replicate in breadth if not substance.
Both translated their personal skills into strong support, communicating and connecting with the public in a way Obama has said he failed to do during his first term. Both left office extremely popular politicians and immediately obvious candidates for the history books.
Douglas Brinkley, one of the regular circle of presidential historians that Obama has convened at the White House, said Obama's posture and strong words in defense of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice at last week's news conference already demonstrate a man who comes off the campaign trail ready to channel that experience and the spirit of Roosevelt and Reagan into the White House bully pulpit.
"He was naming names," Brinkley said. "He's talking in vigorous, muscular presidential language, which is more Theodore Roosevelt than Bill Clinton."
Edmund Morris, who's written biographies of both Roosevelt and Reagan, said there's a key difference between Obama and the winners of the 1904 and 1984 elections.
"The both had enormous popular mandates behind them, huge electoral victories, whereas Obama does not," Morris said.
Those wins, Morris said, powered "surges" of executive action both domestically and internationally.
"Obama has no such impetus," Morris said.
Whatever he does, Obama doesn't have all that much time. Eventually, even smaller things get difficult. For all of Johnson's strong relationships in Congress and the freedom he achieved from pulling out of the 1968 race, he struggled to get his appointees confirmed, even when it came to replacing Earl Warren as chief justice.
"There comes a time when it's no longer possible," Jones said, advising Obama based on his experience within the Johnson White House, "so he needs to frontload it."
That's the tension of a second term, said former George W. Bush deputy press secretary Tony Fratto -- the liberation from not having to face another election versus the countdown clock.
"If you're in the Obama White House right now, you've got to be thinking there are things that we've got to do, and every day we don't accomplish something is a day we don't get back," Fratto said. "With every day that passes, not only are you closer to the end of the term, but what's worse is that you're close to the point when you're a lame duck -- and you don't know when that moment will arrive."
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