Recent presidents struggle through second terms

What will be the major issues brought up in Barack Obama’s second inaugural address this Tuesday? Here are my best guesses.

The first one is easy. In his first post-election press conference, President Obama told us “I’ve got one mandate. I’ve got a mandate to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to get into the middle class.” I expect him to concentrate on that goal in the next four years.That boils down to creating more jobs and promoting better pay in those jobs. But the last three recessions have shown that increased employment and higher wages are no longer tied, as they once were, to getting the economy moving again. Sizable worker productivity gains no longer result in real hourly wage increases. Increased profits
in the private sector don’t necessarily lead to the hiring of new workers.

We desperately need innovative approaches to deal with these new realities. I expect the President will begin to outline some of these in his address.If there is one area where his administration has underperformed in the past four years, it has been in its approach to the housing market. Its Home Affordable Modification Program has been a dismal failure. Too many homeowners have been forced into bankruptcy by banks that make more money by foreclosing on mortgages than they would be making reasonable modifications to them. And while the housing market has bottomed out and prices seem to be slowly rising, we have a long way to go before housing becomes the engine of recovery it was after past recessions. I believe the President will address the issue and outline steps that should be taken to help deserving homeowners.

Four years ago, virtually at the same time as President Obama’s first inaugural, Republican Congressional leaders were meeting to plot the strategy their Senate leader Mitch McConnell later summed up as “the single most important thing we want to achieve, is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Now the one person guaranteed not to run in 2016 is Barack Obama. That reality, combined with the President’s own desire to make a historic “grand bargain,” will drive the budget process. I sat with the President and Vice President Biden during the transition period in late 2008, and I know they understand the importance of reducing our long-term debt. Leaders in both parties remember how the road map developed by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton led to budget surpluses in the late 1990s. I believe the grand bargain is now in reach and will be forged in 2013.

Many previous presidents have not passed major legislation until their second terms. Obama passed more major legislation in his first term than any president since Johnson. That’s why some of his major priorities will not involve new laws, but doing the hard work that always follows major legislation. We will have learned more about what needs to be fixed in Obamacare and the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform law, and they will be amended and hopefully improved.

His other major priorities, which I expect to hear about in the Inaugural, will involve historic legislation on immigration reform, energy independence and climate change, and a call for implementation of his proposal to improve our gun laws. The time has finally come when I believe meaningful legislation will be possible in these areas.

Finally, it seems that all presidents gravitate toward more emphasis on foreign policy in their second terms. Most pundits seem to think this is a matter of legacy building. I believe it is based more on their desires to deal with a broad brush on a large pallet. Domestic policy usually requires a series of small steps to make progress. Bold presidential initiatives in foreign policy can lead to breakthroughs such as “Nixon goes to China.”I’ll devote some future columns to what I think President Obama’s major foreign policy initiatives will be.

And I’ll end this one with a sobering look at history. Second terms haven’t been very successful for recent presidents. Johnson was under siege over Vietnam. Nixon had Watergate and Reagan Iran Contra. Clinton faced impeachment and Bush 43 the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We can’t know what surprises are in store for President Obama. We can only hope that he, and the country, will be up to the challenges we are certain to face.

Originally published 22 January 2012 on