We learned almost nothing about Barack Obama’s second term during his re-election campaign. We will learn almost everything about that second term in the next four weeks.
We already know that the president intends to be more deeply involved in foreign affairs beyond Iraq and Afghanistan; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mercy mission to the Middle East as Hamas rockets were being launched from Gaza and as Israeli troops were massing on the frontier signaled a more aggressive approach. Similar initiatives may be forthcoming, especially as Iran moves closer to possessing nuclear-weapons capability.
As fraught with danger as foreign affairs are, the domestic situation may be even more challenging. This is not the time to determine which of the two American parties is most like Hamas or Hezbollah, or Netanyahu or Ahmadinejad -- such comparisons conceal more than they reveal. It is useful at this juncture merely to observe that the principals in Washington are intransigent by nature and their positions irreconcilable by definition.
But taking on the difficult is what the presidency is for. “No easy matters will ever come to you,” Dwight Eisenhower told his successor on the eve of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, and Obama has been fond of saying in 2012 that if a decision makes its way to his desk, it is because no one below him was able to resolve it. After the election, House Speaker John Boehner and even some of those tannin-eyed members of the Tea Party recognize this, and its corollary: At certain times in history, the presidency is pre-eminent.
This is one of those times, which is why most attention is on the White House and not the Capitol as the thorny economic issues facing Washington are rolled out, and, if this is a truly lucky nation, worked out.
Second terms are notoriously vexing, and this one could be more so than most. Obama begins his in a position weaker than that of any modern second-term president, especially Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who lost only two states in 1936) and Richard M. Nixon (who lost only one in 1972). Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both increased their margins of victory in their second campaigns.
Indeed, Obama is a member of a rare political species, a re-elected president with less of a mandate the second time around than the first. Of presidents elected since the nationalist period in the early 19th century, when the number of electoral votes fluctuated as the nation grew, Obama and Woodrow Wilson are the only presidents to be in that position.
Obama is pushing against history (and, more important, his own inclinations) in another vital area. The story of America since the election of Franklin Roosevelt is the expansion of the role of the federal government, especially in the economy and in establishing entitlements. Obama almost certainly will have to stand athwart history and halt the expansion of one or more legs of the entitlement stool -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. (A fourth leg is his own health care plan.)
This will please almost no one -- not his own party, where a large faction wants entitlements to be excluded from any debt- and deficit-reduction formula, and not his rivals in the Republican Party, many of whom want to overhaul the programs and place them more on a free-market basis.
This time the middle ground — fiddling with eligibility ages and moving the balance of the burden more to providers than beneficiaries — may not be enough. Those sorts of things, which seem palatable to us in December 2012, might have worked had Washington summoned the courage to impose them in 2010. We may look at those two years the way Churchill looked at the period between the ascension of Hitler and the Munich agreement: the years the locusts ate.
The locusts ate a lot of the cabbage Washington could have recovered on the revenue side as well. The usual calculus (closing loopholes and tax breaks, which the left supports, in exchange for lowering rates, which the right supports) is imbedded in the capital climate, but like the weather, it is a matter that everyone talks about and nobody does anything about.
The jarring news for the political class: Climate change is real, and Washington is under water.
It seems like years ago, but it was only yesterday (really, only a month ago) that everyone — the candidates, the commentariat, common folks full of common sense -- was saying that the 2012 election was one of the most important in our lifetimes. We say that sort of rubbish every four years, when in fact we should recognize what the great student of the presidency Richard Neustadt taught us, but what we never learned: Presidents don’t have all that much power. Mostly they have the power, or really the potential, to persuade. That is Obama’s task now.
In truth, the 2012 election settled little. This is not what conservatives, who feel that all the buoys of national life have moved, nor what liberals, who feel America’s new natural state of governance is fundamentally progressive, believe, but it may be true. We are back where we were during the torrid 44 days of budget negotiations in summer 2011, only the situation is ever more dire, in part because those six weeks produced nothing. Washington didn’t kick the problem down the road; it kicked it into a ditch.
Conservatives hope Obama is merely a transitional figure. They may be right, but the transition may be as much in the president himself as in the body politic. He’s not running for re-election again, and the House Republicans are. He has the whip hand, and the House Republicans don’t.
But in horse racing, as in politics, it isn’t the possession of the whip but the use of it that matters. We know who has it. In a month’s time, we should know how he uses it.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.