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The Election—I

Elizabeth Drew

Close observers of President Obama’s style of governing expect that a second term of his presidency, were that to come about, will likely embolden him in his dealings with Congress. Reelection may be sweet but it doesn’t guarantee that Obama will be a profoundly changed man. He accomplished a lot more in his first term than is generally understood—in part because it took him a long time to figure out how to talk about his successes. At times his rookiness showed. A reelection—a confirmation by the country—and a continuing economic recovery would provide him with a changed landscape, and opportunities to extend his reach.

His reluctance in his first four years to fight as hard for his programs as his allies thought he should—and in their view his willingness to cede too much ground to his opponents—were the most oft-voiced criticisms on Capitol Hill. There’s an abundance of speculation about what he will try to do in his second term, but history tells us that priorities tend to be sorted out on the run. Retrospective critiques of what Obama—or any president—should have done rarely take into account the flurry of information he was presented with, the quiet pressures applied by congressional leaders of his party, or the quality of the advice of his staff. One piece of advice or information that seems in hindsight the right thing to have done didn’t necessarily stand out; no flashing lights or buzzers went off.

Some second-term issues are inescapable, in particular the looming “fiscal cliff”: if Congress and the president don’t agree on a new federal budget by the end of the year, spending on every federally funded program will be subjected to a deep, mindless, across-the-board cut—or sequester of funds. At the same time, the Bush tax cuts and certain other breaks—for example the temporarily reduced payroll tax—are set to expire. This calamity, which Congress imposed on itself because it could not reach an agreement with the president, may be postponed beyond the lame-duck Congress. Meanwhile a number of proposals waft about, none of them easy—or the country wouldn’t be in this fix.

But on this issue the reelected president has an advantage. Unlike other legislation, the budget needs the approval of only a majority in the Senate. Filibusters not allowed. Through the all-encompassing budget Obama can put his stamp on the shape and obligations of the federal government. He is also expected to try to at last win an immigration program, both because he owes the Hispanics for their strong support and also because it needs to be done. This would be his own civil rights achievement. He will undoubtedly try to create more jobs, especially in infrastructure, and take other steps to recreate opportunity for the devastated middle class. The list will grow.

A more important question than what Obama will try to do is, how will he try to do it? Will his manner of governing be very different than it was in the first term? He will still be Barack Obama, a contradiction of ambitious and cautious. He’s simply different from the conventional politician. He’s more self-contained, less needy, than almost any president in modern times. (Certainly less so than Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson.) He’s quite evidently not displeased with himself—and there’s much to be pleased with himself about. And Obama’s unique personality affects his political dealings. He conducts the business of politics but keeps a certain part of himself in reserve, holds it back.

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David Burnett/Contact Press Images
Barack and Michelle Obama during a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, August 2012

Why this matters is that Obama’s reserve can come across as aloof, be off-putting to other politicians, and translate into a reluctance to get his hands dirty by working with them. It can irritate businessmen who do not understand why he isn’t falling at their feet, doing whatever he can to win their approval.

Obama’s standoffishness can move to disdain and, unfortunately for him, in the first presidential debate he did little to hide his disdain—for the situation he found himself in and for his opponent. He has never liked debates, regarding them—with validity—as artificial tests of qualities that have little to do with governing. He resisted preparation in 2008, and this time he was up against a slick, hyper opponent who would twist the facts, say anything that seemed useful at the moment, determined to get under his skin, and disrespectful of the office of the presidency. Since he was obviously tired—preparation for a debate takes an absurd amount of time away from the responsibilities of governing—Obama’s dislike of Mitt Romney and debates, and his pride, caused him to seem to have checked out.

He did miss opportunities to confront Romney on some of his more preposterous statements. But his responses to questions made a lot more sense and if his resentment was set aside, his performance was a lot better than the second-guessers and those who rushed to judgment gave him credit for—just as the dubious nature of many of Romney’s statements was largely overlooked in the awe at his energetic performance. But debates have long been judged more by style than substance, one of the reasons Obama disdains them, so he has a lot to get past for the next ones. His campaign the next day, making fun of “this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney” and “what the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year” saying, showed that he knew that he had messed up.

Discussions of what Obama will do or should have done in his first term often overlook the fact that there was a Republican Party implacable in its opposition to virtually everything of any significance he proposed. This was without precedent in modern American politics; the system of governing came very close to not functioning at all.

Obama didn’t have the opportunity that Bill Clinton had to work with a dozen or so Republican senators to get things done. Republican senators with a modicum of responsibility, who have—or would have—cooperated with the president at all, are nearly extinct or living in terror of a Tea Party challenger to their nomination for another term. Republicans more inclined to work with Obama found themselves isolated, and some were bumped off in the primaries in 2010 and this year. After a while Obama found ways to work around Congress, for example with his executive order earlier this year allowing young people who had entered the country illegally with their parents to stay for two years if they met certain qualifications. He also took his own steps to make changes in the implementation of welfare and education laws. There are numerous ways a president can interpret or administer legislation to reflect his political position.

Since the congressional Republicans paid a price for their negativity over the last four years—their poll ratings have been barely off the floor—one would think that they would make a rational decision to work with the president and display a soupçon of responsibility. But the House Republican caucus, in the grip of the Tea Party, has veered off into the irrational. There have been inklings that some Republicans get it, and whispers on Capitol Hill that maybe they won’t fight unto death to maintain the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Other realities shape what a reelected Obama would be able to do. Those who have charged that he should have got more done in his first two years, when the Democrats nominally had sixty votes in the Senate—theoretically enough to break a filibuster—fail, deliberately or not, to take into account that in reality sixty votes were not really at his disposal on major issues. At least two or three Senate Democrats were truly conservative or truly scared of reelection challenges and so didn’t support him when it mattered most. He had to win the votes of at least a couple of Republicans, who usually exacted a price—or played the prima donna until they announced that they were going to do what they were going to do anyway.

No amount of speechifying on Obama’s part would have got him more votes on certain issues about which he has been attacked, particularly on the left, for not having fought harder; the senators involved had their own overriding exigencies. There simply weren’t the votes for adding a public option to the health care program. There weren’t the votes for a larger stimulus program, not to mention a second one.

Obama’s failure was larger, and here is where he can change the nature of his presidency in a second term: he offered no overriding vision; he didn’t inspire; he didn’t lead. His soaring campaign rhetoric in 2008 was tantalizing, suggesting that when he got to Washington he would mobilize the public and with them behind him he would smash the old “system.”

But faced with an economic crisis and having decided that providing health care to virtually all citizens would be his highest domestic priority, he immersed himself in dealing with the details of the matters before him—and lost his tongue. He never quite grasped the importance of governing rhetoric, which requires concrete explanation wrapped in larger purpose. He has acknowledged shortcomings in this respect, but whether he will adapt is another matter.

And so, quite remarkably, Obama lost the definition of the health care bill he was battling to get through Congress. The White House set up a special health care “message” shop that did little good. Though the president rattled off the key provisions of his proposal, from time to time, he didn’t do it in a forceful way, or with the stagecraft that is essential to the presidency—if it is got right. (Even if it is as simple as the “fireside chat.”) This failure on Obama’s part had consequences in the smashing success of the Tea Party in 2010, which changed the face of American politics.

Obama has been defending the health care law more effectively in this presidential campaign but he lost precious time and also the aura of leadership. A second term will show us how much he learned from his first one.

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