What will second-term Obama learn from first-term Obama?


Let's go back a century, Ohio’s William Howard Taft was in the White House. He came into office as the progressive’s progressive, having been Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor.

He began to initiate more trust-busting suits than even his predecessor. He supported an income tax for corporations and a constitutional amendment permitting an income tax for individuals.

Then came an abrupt change. There had been signs suggesting a conservative impulse; President Taft had supported the Payne-Aldrich tariff that didn’t approach progressive hopes for tariff reform. By the time his term was up, Mr. Taft had drifted far from his progressive moorings.

What’s the lesson? Not that President Taft was a traitor to his own ideology, though surely many Republicans considered him one. Not that personal betrayal, which was how Mr. Roosevelt regarded Mr. Taft’s apostasy, has political consequences, which it does.

The lesson is that while presidents may be isolated in the White House, they are not frozen in place there. They change. They see life differently from behind the desk in the Oval Office, which incidentally acquired that architecture and name in Mr. Taft’s time.

This is instructive as we approach the beginning of President Obama’s second term. He’s the same man, but will he be the same president?

We’ve started seeing changes in his approach. In earlier budget fights — which define the confrontations of the Obama era even more than the wars he’s fought or the killing of Osama bin Laden — he stayed close to the White House and held his cards close to his vest. Not this time.

Mr. Obama no longer is a prisoner of his command post on Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s out, engaged in what Andrew Johnson called a swing around the circle, taking his case on the road and to the people.

But what may be most important is the outlook that Mr. Obama, who has moved from optimism to pessimism to realism, adopts in the first year of his new term.

A major question is whether Obama 2.0 will move from forcing change, as he did with his economic stimulus and health-care plan, to negotiating change. He could go either way. He might consider the stimulus and Obamacare historic, virtuous victories and, having been re-elected, believe the strong-arm is the maneuver of choice. Or he may believe the struggles he’s had suggest there must be a better way to govern.

Each presidency must be regarded on its own, judged by its own merits and demerits. As he goes forward, Mr. Obama may come to realize he isn’t being compared to George H.W. Bush (compromiser in the budget vise) or to Lyndon Johnson (architect of a vast expansion of programs and entitlements).

The danger, or opportunity, is something else entirely. He will be compared to Barack Obama.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com