Ruth Marcus
Columnist April 26, 2012

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner arrived in the Oval Office bearing socks. President Obama had admired Wenner’s flashy pair on a previous visit, and this gift fit the bill: one pair salmon with pink squares, the other black and pink stripes.

“These are nice,” the president said. Then he paused. “These may be second-term socks.”

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

A joke, but as Freud would say . . .

Is there a flamboyant Obama yearning to be liberated? Does he have wild second-term hosiery stuffed in the back of the presidential sock drawer, waiting for the proper moment to be safely unveiled?

I hope so.

Republican nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney portrays the president as self-activated Manchurian Candidate, biding time before springing his diabolical plans on the American people.

Romney seized on the president’s open-microphone moment with Dmitry Medvedev, in which Obama was overheard telling the Russian president, “After my election, I have more flexibility.”

Obama, Romney warned the American Society of News Editors, “does not want to share his real plans before the election, either with the public or with the press.” Obama unbound, Romney told the National Rifle Association, “would be unrestrained by the demands of reelection.”

The word “delusional” comes to mind. If anything, a second Obama term promises to be conservative, in the technical sense — conserving the achievements of the first term, health care most of all, and protecting them from Republican dismantling.

Indeed, to listen to Obama, the argument for reelection is as much about avoiding that U-turn as about charting the path ahead. “The last thing we can afford to do is to go back to the very same policies that got us into this mess in the first place,” he said at a campaign fundraiser in Michigan the other day. “They want to roll back Wall Street reforms, so suddenly Wall Street is playing by its own rules again. They want to roll back health insurance reform, go back to the days when insurance companies could jack up your rates or deny you coverage without any reason.”

There are a few obvious now-we-can-finally-do-it items for a second term. At the top of the list: completing the president’s pathetically slow evolution on same-sex marriage.

But for the most part, Obama’s agenda for the second term is distinctly, disappointingly unspecific. That may be a problem common to reelection campaigns. After all, the incumbent president inevitably must devote time to defending his record, while the contours of the politically possible have narrowed from the first campaign. Recall Bill Clinton’s 1996 combination of small-bore ideas and airy rhetorical bridges to the 21st century.

Meanwhile, the president who runs, or claims to have run, on a specific platform risks over-interpreting the election results. Recall George W. Bush a couple days after his 2004 reelection. “You asked do I feel free. Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” Bush said, citing Social Security and tax reform at the top of his to-do list. The capital turned out to be inadequate to either task.

For Obama, the shape of a second term, if he wins one, is likely to be defined early on — indeed, even before the inauguration. The Bush tax cuts will expire. The debt ceiling will again need to be raised. The sequester of defense and domestic spending — the result of the supercommittee’s failure to find a rational alternative — will finally take effect.

A responsible presidential campaign would focus on this coming “taxmageddon” and feature competing, detailed solutions. Instead, we’re left with Obama touting the Buffett rule (an inadequate answer) vs. Romney peddling no-pain tax reform (all specific rate cuts, no specified pain).

Speaking to Rolling Stone, Obama seemed to hitch his second-term prospects to the notion that the election results will liberate him by liberating Republicans.

“My hope is that if the American people send a message to them . . . and they suffer some losses in this next election, that there’s going to be some self-reflection going on — that it might break the fever,” he said. “My hope is that after this next election, they’ll feel a little more liberated” from the thrall of Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist.

Certainly, the president has lacked rational partners across the aisle. But I wonder how much a single election can change — especially when both sides duck the painful choices ahead.

Maybe, if you want to wear the second-term socks, you’ve got to be willing to show a little leg.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com