The latest flash point between the White House and Congress, sequestration, will come to a head on Friday. There seems little possibility before then of an agreement to resolve the fiscal stalemate, meaning billions of dollars in automatic cuts in federal government spending will begin.
The sequestration episode underlines how hard it will be for Barack Obama to secure major domestic policy success in his second term. Republicans (including the significant Tea Party caucus), who were so at odds with the president’s first-term agenda, have maintained their firm grip of the House of Representatives, and retain a sizeable minority in the Senate.
During their first period in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting several core priorities (as Obama did with healthcare and his economic stimulus package). Obama will achieve some further domestic policy success over the next four years, including the possibility of agreement with Congress on immigration reform. However, many re-elected presidents in the postwar era have found it difficult to acquire momentum behind an array of significant new legislative measures, and Obama will probably be no different.
In part, this is because the party of re-elected presidents often hold a weaker position in Congress in a president’s second term. Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972 and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses where both the House of Representatives and Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents.
The productiveness of second terms can also be stymied by the turnover of key personnel. Following re-election success, there’s a sizeable departure of cabinet, White House and other executive branch officials. The problem for the president is that it is not always easy to recruit figures of the same status and calibre as those that leave—and even when this happens, they often fail to hit the ground running.
Two other issues have undercut second-term presidencies. First, re-elected administrations have often been affected by scandals (although the events that trigger the scandals can happen during first terms). Watergate ended the Nixon administration in 1974, Iran-Contra badly damaged the Reagan White House, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998.
Even if Obama and his administration escape significant scandal, he won’t be able to avoid the lame-duck factor. Since he can’t seek more than two terms, political focus will inevitably be diverted elsewhere, particularly after the 2014 congressional elections when the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into gear.
This overall domestic policy context means that Obama is likely to place increasing emphasis on foreign policy in the next four years. This is especially likely if the economic recovery builds pace in coming months. Foreign policy could become a strong point of focus almost immediately if Israel ups the ante with Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme. An Israeli strike, with or without the support of Washington, remains a real possibility in 2013. This issue thus has the potential to pose major headaches for Obama, and will require extremely skilled statesmanship.
Previous presidents have often seen foreign policy initiatives as a key part of the legacy they wish to build; Clinton, for instance, devoted much of his second term trying to secure a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis. A decade and a half later, with still no deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, other areas are just as key to any eventual foreign policy legacy for Obama. In particular, following the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the intended drawdown in Afghanistan, the president will seek to continue his post-9/11 reorientation of foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region and other strategic high-growth markets.
Key threats to maintaining this reorientation of policy remain the possibility of further devastating attacks in the US from al Qaeda, or a major surge of tension in North Africa or the Middle East, perhaps emanating from Israeli-Iranian conflict or the implosion of Syria. However, these scenarios would only reinforce Obama’s focus on foreign policy.