On this issue, much of a second term would be devoted to consolidating the accomplishments of the first. Assuming that the Supreme Court doesn’t totally wipe out the Affordable Care Act, the law will begin covering uninsured Americans in 2014. But there’s an enormous amount of work to do to get ready for that date, and once the law goes into effect, there will be an enormous amount of work needed to iron out the kinks. If the court strikes down the individual mandate — which requires Americans to have health insurance or pay a fine — but leaves the rest of the legislation intact, that process becomes even more difficult and might require some kind of deal with Congress.
Either way, the administration is well aware that the health-care law, perhaps more than any other, is likely to be the president’s legacy, and they will attend to it accordingly.
Speaking of the Supreme Court, there will, of course, be nominations to worry about — vacancies are likely. In addition, Bernanke’s term is going to expire in 2014. If Obama were reelected, the administration would also have to replace a rush of outgoing staffers, likely to include Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
The Obama advisers I spoke with say the White House expects the next Treasury secretary to be a point person in the fiscal negotiations. That argues for someone who knows the budget and knows how to work with Congress, such as Jack Lew, the White House chief of staff who previously led the Office of Management and Budget, or Erskine Bowles, who served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and who more recently co-chaired the Simpson-Bowles commission on deficit reduction.
Presidents tend to have a freer hand on foreign policy, where Congress is generally less involved. So if Obama is facing a difficult Congress and he doesn’t have to spend his time campaigning for reelection, foreign policy is a natural place to put his energies — not to mention to burnish his legacy. Among his counselors, there’s a barely concealed sense of excitement about the possibilities in this arena.
As they see it, the Iraq war is officially over. The conflict in Afghanistan is winding down. Osama bin Laden is dead. The Obama administration, in other words, is nearer to a clean slate than it has been since 2009.
The next phase, in their view, would be focused on “rebalancing” America’s attention away from the Middle East and toward regions of the world that are more economically important to the United States.
As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said, that effort begins with China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. It could mean using free-trade agreements to increase our economic influence and the annual East Asia Summit to create an opportunity for multilateral engagement. Obama’s advisers would also like to spend more time building relationships with Brazil, India and Turkey.
Of course, they are quick to caution that Iran is the wild card. And just as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks derailed the Bush administration’s plans, a major crisis, disaster or opportunity could decide the Obama administration’s second-term focus.
Ezra Klein writes about domestic and economic policy for The Washington Post at washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein.
Read more from Outlook:
Five myths about Barack Obama
Five myths about Obama’s foreign policy
How the Roberts court could save Obama’s health reform
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