Obama's second term won't be easyby Jurek Martin / November 28, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
How will he play his cards? (photo: Obama 2012)
The hoariest cliché in Japan is that, “in politics, an inch ahead is darkness.” It is not quite that bleak for Barack Obama, having won election to a second term by a pretty comfortable margin, but it is still at best murky. That is less because of the proximate issues on his plate—the “fiscal cliff,” a still sluggish economy, the Middle East in turmoil, generals caught with pants down—and more a reflection of the political and cultural climate in which he must operate. The cold fact is that the 44th president is far from master of all he surveys.
That is why there is far too much loose talk about second term mandates. The last four re-elected presidents all fell foul of extraneous events: Richard Nixon was tripped up by Watergate, Ronald Reagan by Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton by Monica Lewinsky, George W Bush by an unending and unpaid for war in Iraq. Reagan got lucky in his second four years because the Soviet empire began falling apart under its own weight, and Clinton benefited from the economy going gangbusters, but W left office as unpopular as any president—and everyone knows what happened to Tricky Dick. All these governed in less polarised times than today.
In many respects, Barack Obama, leaving aside the colour of his skin, does not conform to presidential stereotype. For a start, the suspicion persists that he does not much like the practice of politics. He does not glad-hand, arm-twist, horse-trade or even schmooze. His most recent biographer, David Maraniss, believes that he is more an anthropologist than a quintessential politician, the observer as president if you will, understanding much but somehow disengaged, sometimes even from himself. Harry Truman once said that, “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Obama has a Portuguese water variety, plus his family and the old mates with whom he plays basketball, which makes him pretty self-contained.