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 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.
The domestic situation may be even more challenging. But taking on the difficult is what the presidency is for. “No easy matter will ever come to you,” Dwight Eisenhower told his successor on the eve of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, and Mr. 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 could resolve it. 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.
Second terms are notoriously vexing. Mr. 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 early 19th century, when the number of electoral votes fluctuated as the nation grew, Mr. Obama and Woodrow Wilson are the only presidents to be in that position.
Mr. Obama is pushing against history in another area. The story of America since Franklin Roosevelt is the expansion of the role of the federal government, especially in the economy and in entitlements. Mr. Obama almost certainly will have to 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.
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 might have worked had Washington 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 cabbage. The usual calculus (closing loopholes and tax breaks, which the left supports, in trade for lowering rates, which the right supports) is embedded in the capital climate, but nobody does anything about it.
The great student of the presidency Richard Neustadt taught us that Presidents don’t have all that much power. Mostly they have the potential to persuade. That is Mr. Obama’s task now.
The 2012 election settled little. We are back where we were during the torrid 44 days of budget negotiations in summer 2011. But Washington didn’t kick the problem down the road, it kicked it into a ditch.
Conservatives hope Mr. Obama is merely a transitional figure. 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.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Contact him at: email@example.com