Friday, November 9, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About a Second Term

President Obama proved his political skill and resilience beyond any doubt this week when he was re-elected to four more years as President of the United States of America.  That fact cannot be debated.  What is debatable is that great exercise of punditry that pops up every four years, the whole “what does it all mean” thing that everyone will be writing about.  If you are a liberal you probably saw Tuesday night a rousing endorsement of the policies of Obama’s first term and a mandate to do more.  You’d have some strong evidence to back you up; Obama is the first Democrat since FDR to win two elections with a majority of the popular vote.  Indeed, the Democratic Party has now won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.  If you are a conservative, well the end is probably neigh (heck someone is emailing James Fallows claiming they are shutting down their business in revenge for this.)  Surely things can only get worse.

In both cases you are wrong.  Obama won a second term not a “mandate” for anything, and he won’t get to do as much as liberals wish or conservatives fear.  But that in itself is a lot, a historic “a lot” indeed.

Political science tells us that Presidents win elections not mandates.  None other than liberal scion Paul Krugman said after election night 2008 that Obama had a “mandate” for health care reform.  Obama then historically passed said reform and the American electorate responded in 2010 by voting in 63 new Republican members of Congress.  In 2004 George W. Bush announced after his reelection that he “had political capital, and intended to use it.”  Which he did by trying to privatize Social Security.  That push failed as was directly responsible for Democrats being swept to power in the midterm elections of 2006.  Bill Clinton ran heavily on healthcare in 1992 with none other than his communications director George Stephanopoulos telling the staff at their last “War Room” meeting on election eve that, “Tomorrow, for the first time in a generation we’re going to win.  That means people are going to get better jobs.  More people are going to get healthcare and get better care and pay a little less for care and more kids are going to go to great schools.”  Clinton’s historic victory hardly got his healthcare plan through a Democratic Congress.  You can take this list back a very long way.

If you want an example of how mandates are more ethereal constructs than tangible political realities just look at the marriage amendment here in Minnesota.  Less than twelve hours after the press reported the marriage amendment’s defeat some DFL politicians announced it was proof, dare I say a mandate, that it was high time to legalize same sex marriage.  Well was it?  You can make an argument that it was, you can also make an argument that it wasn’t at all.  You can argue that legalizing same sex marriage would be a good political move for the DFL or a bad one, or good for some actors and bad for others or something that should be done in spite of political fallout or could done in such a manner that there will be no fallout at all.  In short, the argument over a mandate is really a political argument about legislative agendas, constituencies and values.  Something that has never been and never will be, cut and dry.

So am I saying the election didn’t matter?  Of course not!  Every election—from who’s on the Minneapolis School Board to who is President—matters a great deal.  But wining doesn’t change the fundamental reality of how our political systems work.  What has happened on Tuesday was momentous for two reason; it enabled Obama to solidify the achievements of his first term and to offset the errors of that term as well.

It is popular among regular people and pundits to depict presidents as a sort of elected King (or dictator if you prefer a more modern word).  That is presidents win elections and then for good or for bad enact their will to reshape national life and any failure to change things is their own.  This is of course wrong.  As political scientist, aid to John Kennedy and adviser to Bill Clinton Richard Neustadt argued back in 1960, the Presidency is actually a fairly limited office.  Go back and look at the Constitution, a president cannot spend money, or enact laws or even appoint people.  At best they can only submit a budget to Congress, sign or veto a bill set on their desk and submit nominations to the Senate for their advice and consent.  With that in mind Obama’s real accomplishments, like getting millions of Americans access to health care, are all that more real because of the limitations his position entailed.

Obama cannot go back in time and correct his mistakes any more than you or I can in our own lives. But he now has a chance to offset the errors and oversights of his last four years in the next four. For reasons that defy explanation Obama has been quite slow in doing the truly presidential and crucial work of staffing the government. It’s true that Republicans have fiercely resisted Obama but he has been slow to move as well. If he had lost, the historically high number of vacancies on the federal bench would have been a chance for Romney to remake the federal judiciary, now Obama has a chance to correct this error; a sort of “do over” that can be applied to everything from scaling back drone policy to more buddy buddy photo ops with Netanyahu. As The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a year ago about how our perceptions revolve around reelection more than we might realize:
Hard as it is to have any dispassionate discussion of a president’s performance during an election year, it will be even harder once the election is over. If a year from now Obama is settling in for a second term, a halo effect will extend back to everything he did during his first four years. His programs will be more effective in reality, since he will get that many more years to cement them in with follow-up measures, supportive appointments to federal agencies and the courts, and possible vetoes of any attempts at repeal. And, through the lens of history, they will seem more effective, since whatever he did in his first term will appear to have been part of an overall plan that was ratified through reelection. Yet if a year from now a just-beaten former President Obama is thinking about his memoirs and watching his former appointees blame one another, and him, for the loss, the very same combination of missteps and achievements will be viewed as a narrative leading inexorably to defeat…. 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.

If he had lost all of his errors would be irreversible and would seem even worse, as his political opponents would have had the opportunity to exploit them even more.  But he didn’t and he now has the opportunity to repair and mitigate them.  In the same way that even George W. Bush, one of the worst Presidents in American History in my humble opinion, did in the last two years of his presidency when he finally (finally!) moved to reign in Chenney’s outsized role.

In that sense Obama’s reelection was “historic” but not in the sense that everything in American life will now change or even change over the next four years.   But he will exact a change on American life that is profound, even if we have a hard time seeing it every day.  As The New Republic’s Jon Cohn put it:

But, whatever happens over the next four years, Obama’s reelection guarantees that the laws passed during his first term stay on the books. That instantly makes him one of the most accomplished presidents of modern times. Already Obama and his allies have shaped this country in ways that will last for generations—making life more secure, and creating new opportunities, for tens of millions of Americans.

For people working in a political movement you always want to keep climbing towards the summit.  But sometimes you should, for perspective’s sake, turn around and look at how far you have come.

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