The two landmark bills that President Obama signed into law — the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act — both happened during the first two years of Obama’s tenure, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Since then big ideas requiring big laws to achieve big goals have been stalled by partisan gridlock.
So it comes as a surprise to see University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs argue in an article in the Huffington Post that Obama has had a more consequential second term than any president since FDR.
Part of that is the competition for that distinction. JFK, Carter and the first Bush didn’t serve a second term. LBJ served a term and a half but wasn’t reelected so the landmark bills he signed are scored as part of his first term. Nixon and Clinton and to some degree Reagan were distracted by second-term scandals. George W. Bush’s second term was hobbled by disasters of his first term, like the war in Iraq. Eisenhower was a caretaker president. And so on.
But, Jacobs argues, building on expansions of presidential power that he inherited from Nixon and Reagan, Obama has used executive authority to put a surprising number of big things on his list of second-term accomplishments. Writes Jacobs:
Obama’s policies and actions since his second inauguration have reshaped or initiated new developments of enormous consequence for the U.S. domestic and foreign policy. America now has a climate change policy for the first time. In a sharp departure, the Obama administration launched a broad crackdown on the drivers of global warming by issuing new regulations to cut the emission of methane by the gas and oil industry and carbon dioxide. The international agreement in Paris is not legally binding, but it creates global expectations that will target global scrutiny on countries that fail to comply. Much remains uncertain, but these and other changes in policy are meshing with new expectations among businesses and consumers that are likely to persist and evolve…
Venomous relations with Iran and Cuba existed for decades until Obama intervened. Cuba had been a regional irritation that remained trapped in the time warp of the Cold War. The president’s normalizing of relations swept that away. New U.S.-Cuba relations are gaining broad acceptance and will affect U.S. relations in the Caribbean and Latin America for years to come.
The treaty with Iran will remain contentious and uncertain for some time. The deal may lead to a more aggressive and threatening Iran as showcased by its expanding ballistic missile program. Yet Iran has also taken steps to abide by the treaty, including its shipment to Russia of nearly all of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. The implementation of the treaty later this year, which appears more likely, may gradually coax Iran back into the circle of nations and lead to significant changes in U.S. diplomacy and national security in the Middle East and more broadly. Obama drew the enmity of labor for winning fast-track trade authority on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but he may use it this year to help reestablish the U.S. as a dominant power in the Pacific at a time of growing Chinese sway.
The Affordable Care Act was passed, of course, during Obama’s first-term. But the rollout and implementation were part of the Obama second-term story. And, Jacobs suggests, that whatever happens in the future with Republican goals of repealing Obamacare, many of the key features — like the guarantee that even those with pre-existing condition can still get coverage, like the requirement that insurers allow kids to stay covered under their parents’ plans until age 26, and several other features — will never be taken away.
Obviously, Obama has not accomplished all his goals. “Far from it,” Jacobs writes. “He failed to ‘contain’ the self-proclaimed Islamic State, close Guantanamo and coax a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. He made starts on immigration and helping America transition toward its future as a multi-racial country, but the results are uneven… Even where Obama’s impact is clear, debates will rage for years on the merits — whether his second term advanced or set back America. The verdict is likely to offer a mix and change with time. What is clear already is that Obama has transformed the policy landscape.”