In his essay on President Obama’s first term, James Fallows dismisses Obama’s conceit that he would prefer to be “a really good one-term” president than a “mediocre” president who served two terms. “The reality,” Fallows writes, “is that our judgment about ‘really good’ and ‘mediocre’ presidents is colored by how long they serve. A failure to win reelection places a ‘one-term loser’ asterisk on even genuine accomplishments. Ask George H. W. Bush, victor in the Gulf War; ask Jimmy Carter, architect of the Camp David agreement.”
For Obama, it’s about more than the asterisk. The most important fact of Obama’s reelection campaign is that, if he wins, the single most important accomplishment of his second term would be protecting the gains of his first term. If he wins, the Affordable Care Act — barring a truly unexpected ruling from the Supreme Court — becomes the law of the land. If he wins, Dodd-Frank becomes the law on Wall Street. If he loses, both policies are likely to either be rolled back or hollowed out. Bush’s victory in the Gulf War withstood Bill Clinton’s election, and the Camp David agreement was not undone by Ronald Reagan. In Obama’s case, however, a failure to win a second term will not just color his accomplishments. It will decide their fate.
Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at the Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC and Bloomberg. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system that’s constantly screwing it up. He really likes graphs, and is on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. E-mail him here.
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Moreover, if Obama wins a second term, his accomplishments would be comparatively limited. He would not enjoy anything like the congressional majorities of his first two years again. He is likely to face a Republican House or a Republican Senate or both. What he can accomplish in terms of new legislation will thus depend on how much congressional Republicans want him to accomplish, in terms of new legislation. Although there’s some reason to believe that losing the 2012 election could empower more moderate factions in the GOP, anything beyond modest levels of cooperation would remain unlikely. Divided government is not the place for miracles. As such, it’s likely to be the legislation from Obama’s first term that decides his legacy and holds the most hope of addressing the country’s toughest policy problems.
Of late, there have been a number of sweeping assessments of Obama’s first term. Andrew Sullivan’s essay in Newsweek was the most admiring. Obama, he writes, plays a “long game” that frustrates his supporters and detractors, alike, but has led to an incredible record of success on his core priorities. “The president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider.”
Noam Scheiber’s article on “Obama’s Worst Year” — which is an excerpt from his new book on Obama’s economic team, “The Escape Artists” — is more critical. He argues that “Obama’s greatest vulnerability as a leader” has been his consistent misunderstanding of the opposition, his endless desire to cut a deal with Republicans. To Scheiber, Obama’s turn toward deficit reduction in 2011 was an unmitigated disaster. “His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long.” The saving grace was his eventual recognition that confrontation was necessary. This pattern of extended passivity followed by miraculous recovery, Scheiber says, has been present throughout Obama’s career: It was there in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, his response to Jeremiah Wright, his health-care plan. “Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour,” Scheiber warns.