Obama, lame ducks, and a history of second-term stumbles
From Maureen Dowd to Cokie Roberts to Peggy Noonan, pundits on both sides of the aisle seem eager to pin the "lame duck" label on President Obama. Following the sequester setback and the background check filibuster, Obama was recently forced at a press conference to assess whether or not he still has the "juice."
Obama's premature political obituaries lack historical perspective. While second-terms often go off the rails, Obama still has several promising avenues for big successes. But for an apples-to-apples comparison, let's fairly review the second-term records — the many lows along with the scattered highs — of Obama's Democratic predecessors.
Wilson's first term was studded with major progressive reforms: The establishment of the progressive income tax, the founding of the Federal Reserve, the first law establishing maximum hours for certain private employees, and legislation to prevent monopolies. But World War I unexpectedly dominated Wilson's second term, stalling momentum for more reforms that could bolster the middle class.
He pledged it would be a "war to end all wars" with an ultimate goal of a "League of Nations" to peaceably resolve future disputes. But his presidency ended in crushing defeat as he failed to get the Republican-controlled Senate to ratify the necessary treaty.
However, the contributions of women to the war effort helped persuade Wilson to push hard for a constitutional amendment enshrining women's right to vote. The Senate was unmoved by Wilson's direct appeal in 1918, and rejected the amendment. But soon after his party lost control of Congress, the new Republican leadership helped approve the amendment.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The New Deal was largely enacted in FDR's first term. But instead of building on past successes, Roosevelt started his second-term by demanding that Congress give him the authority to name additional members to the Supreme Court, which had been striking down New Deal planks. The attempted power grab was a political disaster. Roosevelt's plan to "pack" the court died in Congress, drove conservative Democrats closer to Republicans, and put the brakes on additional New Deal reforms. A bitter Roosevelt sought to purge 10 conservatives from his party in the 1938 primaries, but defeated only one, further solidifying a bipartisan alliance against liberalism.
Still, later in his second term, Roosevelt did pass the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which restored minimum wages, maximum hours, and bans on child labor that had been struck down by the court. He got the economy back on track after scrapping a premature move toward fiscal conservatism that had sparked a brief recession.
Roosevelt's third term and abbreviated fourth term were more praiseworthy; he successfully prosecuted World War II and in the process fully lifted the economy out of depression. But the New Deal remained on the sidelines.
After serving out the bulk of Roosevelt's fourth term (let's consider this Truman's first term), Truman was elected in his own right in 1948 while helping Democrats retake control of Congress. Truman ambitiously began his fifth year in office calling for a "Fair Deal," a wide-ranging slate of liberal reforms including national health insurance, civil rights, and more progressive taxation. But conservative Democrats proved hard to budge, and little of the package became law. In November 1949, Truman wrote in his diary, "Trying to make the 81st Congress perform is and has been worse than cussing the 80th."
By 1950, Truman was consumed with the Korean War, which sapped his political capital and eventually drove down his approval rating to 22 percent.
Still, Truman was able to squeeze out a few elements from his "Fair Deal," including a watered-down version of a public housing law, a minimum wage increase, and an expansion of Social Security benefits.
Clinton began his second term hemmed in by a Republican-controlled Congress, making it impossible to drive a liberal agenda. Also, being impeached didn't help.
Clinton was compelled to pursue some deregulation and privatization initiatives, such as the "Medicare Plus Choice" initiative, which introduced private insurance to the retiree health program, and Wall Street deregulation, which some argue planted the seeds for the 2008 market crisis.
But Clinton did salvage some of his health care agenda by tucking the Children's Health Insurance Program into the 1997 balanced budget compromise with Republicans. He also had two major foreign policy successes: The expulsion of Serbia from Kosovo and the Northern Ireland peace agreement. He also was ahead of the curve on counterterrorism, foiling the al Qaeda plot to bomb the Los Angeles airport on New Year's Day 2000.
With the sorry history of second terms in mind, Obama's two early setbacks look pretty minor. Unlike his Democratic predecessors, nothing suggests he will face impeachment or otherwise step into a scandal. Nothing in his agenda smacks of fatal overreach. What happens next in Syria is an unknown, but clearly Obama is wary of being dragged into an impossible situation.
More importantly, he still has several plausible opportunities for significant wins.
The president has a great chance of enacting sweeping immigration reform. The background check battle isn't over yet (as Wilson's suffrage effort reminds us, sometimes the bully pulpit takes a little time). A "grand bargain" budget deal — which understandably makes many liberals nervous — could be a vehicle to tack on liberal priorities such as new infrastructure investment, similar to how Clinton won his children's health insurance program. And as New York magazine's Jonathan Chait recently explained, Obama is quietly pursuing major regulation to slash carbon emissions that could burnish his environmental legacy.
Of course, Obama could strike out on all of the above, which would make him yet another mortal second-termer. But it is foolish to declare him a lame duck because of a couple of setbacks. Obama has plenty of opportunities remaining to build on his already strong first-term legacy. If he were a lame duck, he wouldn't.