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Obama’s dwindling prospects in a second term

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Obama has diminishing time, resources, support and opportunity to accomplish anything.

Four more years for Obama. Now what?  What does Barack Obama do in his second term and what can he accomplish?  Simply put, his options are limited and the prospects for major success quite limited.

David Schultz
David Schultz

Presidential power is the power to persuade, as Richard Neustadt famously stated. Many factors determine presidential power and the ability to influence including personality (as James David Barber  argued), attitude toward power, margin of victory, public support, support in Congress, and one’s sense of narrative or purpose. 

Additionally, presidential power is temporal, often greatest when one is first elected, and it is contextual, affected by competing items on an agenda. All of these factors affect the political power or capital of a president.

Presidential power also is a finite and generally decreasing product.  The first hundred days in office – so marked forever by FDR’s first 100 in 1933 – are usually a honeymoon period, during which  presidents often get what they want. FDR gets the first New Deal, Ronald Reagan gets Kemp-Roth, George Bush in 2001 gets his tax cuts.

Presidents lose political capital, support

But, over time, presidents lose political capital. Presidents get distracted by world and domestic events, they lose support in Congress or among the American public, or they turn into lame ducks.  This is the problem Obama now faces.

Obama had a lot of political capital when sworn in as president in 2009. He won a decisive victory for change with strong approval ratings and had majorities in Congress — with eventually a filibuster margin in the Senate, when Al Franken finally took office in July. Obama used his political capital to secure a stimulus bill and then pass the Affordable Care Act. He eventually got rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and secured many other victories. But Obama was a lousy salesman, and he lost what little control of Congress that he had in the 2010 elections.

Since then, Obama has be stymied in securing his agenda. Moreover, it is really unclear what his agenda for a second term is. Mitt Romney was essentially right on when arguing that Obama had not offered a plan for four more years beyond what we saw in the first term.

A replay wouldn’t work

Whatever successes Obama had in the first term, simply doing a replay in the next four years will not work.

First, Obama faces roughly the same hostile Congress going forward that he did for the last two years. Do not expect to see the Republicans making it easy for him.

Second, the president’s party generally does badly in the sixth year of his term. This too will be the case in 2014, especially when Democrats have more seats to defend in the Senate than the GOP does.

Third, the president faces a crowded and difficult agenda. All the many fiscal cliffs and demands to cut the budget will preoccupy his time and resources, depleting money he would like to spend on new programs.  Obama has already signed on to an austerity budget for his next four years – big and bold is not there.

Fourth, the Newtown massacre and Obama’s call for gun reform places him in conflict with the NRA. This is a major battle competing with the budget, immigration, Iran and anything else the president will want to do.

Finally, the president is already a lame duck and will become more so as his second term progress.

Presidential influence is waning

One could go on, but the point should be clear: Obama has diminishing time, resources, support and opportunity to accomplish anything. His political capital and presidential influence is waning, challenging him to adopt a minimalist agenda for the future.

What should Obama do? Among the weaknesses of his first term were inattention to filling federal judicial vacancies.  Judges will survive beyond him and this should be a priority for a second term, as well as preparing for Supreme Court vacancies. He needs also to think about broader structural reform issues that will outlive his presidency, those especially that he can do with an executive order.

Overall, Obama has some small opportunities to do things in the next four years – but the window is small and will rapidly close.

David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships. He is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). Schultz blogs at Schultz’s Take, where this article first appeared.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/22/2013 - 08:26 am.

    A significant part of the win for Obama had to do with a rejection of the Republican vision for America as it was presented by the various candidates, and ultimately as presented (in its various forms) by Romney. The Republican primary was a supreme clown show—an embarrassing exhibit of the lunacies, quirks and cranks that aptly demonstrated the unsuitability of the modern Republican party for the questions facing us this day.

    Expectations for achievement are tempered greatly by the flamboyant stalemate of the first term, but for many of the voters it is enough that Obama is not a product of the modern Republican party.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/22/2013 - 08:44 am.

    It’s enough

    for me that Obama has made Michele Bachmann and Mitch McConnell and the right wing in general choke on their predictions of making Obama a one term President. I didn’t care for the Affordable Care Act all that much but it’s a start and at least that will have a chance to move things in the right direction. For the rest, Obama proved that he was about in line with Dwight Eisenhauer on the political spectrum, that is, a center-right politician. He’s proved himself to be more of a Wall Street tool than I would have ever expected and I have no reason to think that’s going to change in the second term. Hopefully, the Depression won’t get any worse.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/22/2013 - 06:46 pm.

      Sharpest Tool In The Shed

      Obama turned out to be exactly the Wall Street tool I expect. In regard to Wall Street, I expect Clinton II and was unfortunately not disappointed. The modern Democratic Party is very much a corporatist machine, having long ago shed it’s union made Red Wing work boots in favor of a pair of imported Gucci loafers.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/22/2013 - 10:12 am.

    A Different Scenario

    First of all, I would posit that, if President Obama rides out his second term with our economy continuing to slowly recover and accomplishes nothing else that he hasn’t already accomplished, he will have accomplished a great deal.

    Still, I’m hoping and expecting that this will play out differently that Mr. Schultz’s vision: I’m expecting that, despite recent short-term moderation, the pressures of the Tea Party wing within the House of Representatives will force a major budgetary showdown with the President,…

    and as the midterm elections approach, the Moderate Republicans (House and Senate), fearing primary challenges from the Tea Party will move to the right and massively obstruct popular proposals that Obama and Democrats make,…

    up to and including another government shut down (which, we must remember, the Tea Party folks will CELEBRATE while remaining ignorant to the damage it does to their own followers).

    They will also be damaged by continuing, massively ignorant and biased statements about women’s issues, GLBT folks, Hispanics, etc., coming from the darlings of their Tea Party Wing.

    By the midterms, it will be so clear to the general public (as it is ALREADY so clear to the majority of people) that the Republicans do not care in the least for our nation nor care about the well being of their constituents, that the midterms will be a blood bath against them (even in many of their carefully-gerrymandered districts).

    All of that will lead Obama to the most productive last two years of a presidency ever recorded.

    Meanwhile, the public, having grown deaf to, and sick to death of the endless blaring negative ads against Democratic candidates, ads paid for by our nation’s most selfish and self-serving would-be oligarchs, will again reject all things Republican in the election of 2016.

    After that, the Democrats will likely get too far out ahead of the people again and lose the support of the general public, or start taking damage from the far left wing of their own party, or suffer underfunding of their campaign efforts because they’ve successfully reigned in the flim-flam and rip off artists on Wall Street.

    I can only hope that, when that time arrives, the Randroids will mostly have grown up (or gotten bored with politics and walked away) the Tea Party folks will have been appropriately marginalized, and the Republicans will have found their way back toward the fiscally conservative, socially moderate perspectives that made them so useful to this nation in the 1950s and 60s (when the Tea Party folks used to be Southern Democrats).

    • Submitted by Glenn Merrick on 01/22/2013 - 11:04 am.

      As unproductive for the middle class as Greg’s different scenario is, I agree that it is likely to play out, although unevenly, this way across the country. It may take awhile for the harm being wrought by the Tea Party and those that are afraid of them to come around and bite them. Those of us living in the upper midwest will have a front row seat to how things play out by witnessing what happens in Minnesota (already purging the Tea Party) and, how things evolve in Wisconsin and Michigan where moderate voters will be subject to more punishment of the middle class by Republican leadership bent on modeling their states after Alabama.

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/22/2013 - 06:58 pm.

    David Schultz

    I often find Schultz to have fairly keen insights. But I find a couple of facile observations here.

    First, he repeats the canard that Obama had a filibuster-proof majority. Ted Kennedy died about 5 minutes after Al Franken was sworn in. And due to too many Democratic Senators are like Max Baucus of Montana, further to the right than they are to the left.

    Second, Schultz says that 2014 should lead to GOP gains in the Senate since they have fewer seats to defend. We heard that in as late as May of 2012. Then the Tea Party-endorsed candidates stepped in front of live microphones and for the second election in a row cost cost the GOP it’s Senate majority. For Pete’s sake Claire McKaskill was considered dead (wo)man walking and she won by a fairly comfortable margin.

    In 2010 Democratic Congressional candidates kept their distance from Obama. I don’t think that will be as true in 2014.

    Schlutz’ overall point is probably correct.

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