A Legacy in The Making

November 7, 2012

His final campaign for public office is over. Now the real work begins for Barack Obama.
Few presidents achieve true greatness – and sometimes that achievement comes only after they are long out of office or long departed from this life.
Barack Obama was assured of a place in the history books simply by winning the presidency in 2008. The question now is whether he will be remembered for his accomplishments while in office. That remains to be seen.
The president has spoken many times about the power of narrative. Well, the narrative of his presidency – the story of the Obama years – will be written in the next two years. Not four years, but two.
If he is going to bring about the sort of transformative change he has spoken about, he has to do it before the midterm congressional elections in 2014. After that, he will become just another lame-duck president, like all term-limited presidents since Dwight Eisenhower.
The president now has as much political capital as he will ever have. So he must begin now – not in January, when he takes the oath of office for the second time, but now – to implement his vision for his second term. Because the race to succeed him in 2016 starts today, and it will consume American politics and government after the ’14 congressional races.
History shows that two-term presidents since Eisenhower – who was the first president limited to two terms by the 22nd amendment to the Constitution – have not had a happy final two years of their presidencies. George W. Bush initiated little and seemed disengaged in his last two years. Bill Clinton spent his last two years fighting off impeachment and irrelevancy. Ronald Reagan became enmeshed in the Iran-contra scandal (although history will remember that he also set the stage for an end to the Cold War late in his term). Eisenhower seemed tired in his last few years in the White House.
In essence, because of the peculiar nature of American politics, second-term presidents really have two years, not four, to get their agenda enacted. Once they pass the middle of their second term, their power over Congress and public opinion decreases dramatically as attention turns to a new presidential campaign, and new candidates.
The president, as he attempts to create a long-lasting legacy, will have to figure out how to deal with a Republican-controlled House whose leaders have shown no inclination to negotiate or compromise. That is a formidable obstacle. The president himself hasn’t been particularly eager to formulate back-channel relationships with the Republican House leaders.
The president will have to change his style if he wants to avoid the bitter partisan wrangling that has marked the last two years. Of course, there’s no assurance that any gesture from the president will be reciprocated by the Republican House leadership. But the president has to try, and if his handshake is rebuffed, then he must take his case to the American people, just as Ronald Reagan did when he pushed his domestic agenda through a Democratic-controlled Congress in the 1980s.
The clock already is ticking.
(Terry Golway is the director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy)