The most distressing result of last November’s election was that it appeared to leave Washington’s power balance unchanged. Same president in the White House, Democrats still controlling the Senate, Republicans still holding the House. But Obama is already showing that he’s learned some things in his first term.
No new president enters the White House totally ready for the job, but Barack Obama was more unprepared than most. He’d never worked in the Executive Branch, and, other than his campaigns, never managed a large organization.
But the voters, hungry for change in Washington, elected him anyway. They crossed their fingers, hoping the intelligence, values and temperament they saw in him would more than make up for his inexperience. They hoped he’d learn on the job.
Most new presidents run into trouble right off the bat. John F. Kennedy signed off on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Bill Clinton ran into trouble in Somalia and in Congress, where he suffered an early defeat on gays in the military. Jimmy Carter flubbed his first encounter with Congress.
Obama avoided major disasters in his first months. The economy was sinking fast, but he steadied the ship, bailing as needed. He suffered no humiliating defeats in Congress, but he gave a lot of ground, to fellow Democrats as well as Republicans, in the process.
There were decisions he made that are now easy to second-guess. I wish he had gone for a bigger stimulus package, or one that included a second phase that would have been triggered when the recession proved deeper than it looked in January 2009. I wish he had followed Joe Biden’s recommendation for a small-footprint counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan instead of Gen. David Petraeus’ Taliban-defeating, nation-building offensive. I wish he hadn’t caved on the question of closing the prison at Guantanamo.
But the biggest mistake Obama made was in misjudging the opposition. He fell for his own press releases, thinking that, by the force of his winning personality, he could change the way Washington works.
There’s a Beltway myth that if Obama just schmoozed more with young Republican House members or crusty GOP senators he could have made bipartisanship bloom again on the Potomac. But Republicans and Democrats in Congress were locked in nasty opposition a decade before Obama came to town. The forces driving that conflict – special interests, think tanks, redistricting and activist media, among others – were unfazed by Obama’s rhetoric or his historic election. After the tea party election of 2010, things just got worse.
The most distressing result of last November’s election was that it appeared to leave Washington’s power balance unchanged. Same president in the White House, Democrats still controlling the Senate, Republicans still holding the House.
But Obama is already showing that he’s learned some things in his first term. He’s more confident that he has the people on his side. They re-elected him not because he was a novelty with a golden tongue, but because they agreed with him on the issues. He’ll turn to them for support, not the old Washington hands.
Page 2 of 2 - Obama has modified the “team of rivals” approach he used to fill his first-term Cabinet. He’s turning to people he knows and can trust, which could prove a problem. Other presidents second terms have faltered because of staff burnout and the lack of new ideas and new energy.
The biggest lesson Obama has learned is that trying to meet Republicans halfway is a losing proposition. They just move the goalposts, and won’t support him no matter how much he compromises.
As he’s already shown in the fiscal cliff negotiations, his refusal to negotiate an increase in the debt ceiling and the ambitious gun violence proposal he unveiled last week, Obama intends to lead, not pursue some elusive bipartisan consensus. There will be no charm offensive this time around, because what matters in Washington today is political power, not personal relations.
Others can try. Obama has already used Joe Biden effectively in dealing with the Senate. House Democrats should exploit the divisions between the Republicans’ tea party caucus and the sanity caucus that bucked the GOP majority on the fiscal cliff and Hurricane Sandy relief bills.
Obama starts his second term in a position of strength. A new Pew poll has his approval rating as high as it’s been since his first months in office. His personal favorability stands at 59 percent – while the Republicans’ favorability has fallen to 33 percent.
Other presidents have been tripped up in their second terms by their own weaknesses: Nixon’s paranoia, Clinton’s lust, Reagan’s deteriorating memory. Obama could fall victim to his own arrogance, the insularity that comes from too many years in the White House bubble – or by crises and surprises no one sees coming.
As he raises his right hand to recite the oath of office again, he’ll have earned the chance to demonstrate how much he learned in his first four years.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.