Obama’s Last Two Years as President: A Democrats View

I previously posted on how the next two years look for the Republicans post the 2014 mid-term elections. This post looks at it from a Democratic viewpoint.

Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty who was President Clinton’s Chief of Staff has written an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal which discusses how Barack Obama can achieve success in his last two years in the White House. McLarty asserts that the Obama presidency isn’t over.

The unanimous answer: not by a long shot. Every two-term president for a century has entered his last 24 months in office facing predictions of irrelevance, disarray and failure. Most have felt besieged by enemies and abandoned by some friends. “The pundits claimed the administration was ‘paralyzed’ and ‘dead in the water,’ ” wrote Ronald Reagan in his 1990 autobiography, “An American Life.” His job approval in 1986, as his administration was buffeted by the Iran-Contra scandal, stood at 47%.

But the last two years of a second term can be among the most eventful. President Reagan negotiated an arms deal with the Soviet Union. President Bill Clinton led a war in Kosovo and sealed a trade pact with China. President George W. Bush authorized the “surge” in Iraq and unprecedented steps to combat a global financial meltdown.

Truman and Johnson are two good examples of President’s who were worn down by the office. Truman by having to lead America out of World War II and dealing with the Korean War. Johnson became worn out by the Vietnam War. McLarty then goes on discuss how Ronald Reagan dealt with becoming a lame duck.

“Ronald Reagan, rather than being a lame duck, a virtual dead duck for the last two years, decided to clean house, get fresh voices,” Kenneth Duberstein, the last chief of staff in the Reagan White House, said at one of our discussions. “We helped him rebuild those last two years. So in some ways the last two years were the most important two years.”

This sounds very similar to what John Key has done post the 2014 New Zealand Election. I do think Obama should do the same and get his own “fresh voices” into the White House and Cabinet. If this were to happen it could well help him combat the perception that he appears to be too cautious when making decisions on critical issues if he chooses the right people. So can a lame duck fly? There are some interesting examples cited.

The fourth quarter of a presidency can free an incumbent to act with newfound autonomy. Past presidents have used the period to rise above constraints of their own party. President Reagan brushed past conservative protests to achieve his historic deal with the Soviets to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. President Clinton went beyond the Democratic base to normalize trade relations with China and to create Plan Colombia, in which the U.S. devoted substantial help to the fight against drug cartels and left-wing guerrillas.

Developing autonomy is something I think Obama must do otherwise his policy agenda is in grave danger of becoming irrelevant with potentially Hilary Clinton making a run for President in 2016. The Democrats will start focusing on her and stop focusing on Obama.

With the Republicans poised to take control of the Senate Obama needs to find ways of being his own man and work constructively with the GOP. The issue of a president dealing with both houses of Congress controlled by the opposing party didn’t prevent Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton getting things down when it mattered. McLarty suggests one issue that Obama could work on.

That formula will be harder to implement on domestic policy. But that does not exempt the administration from taking on the rampant dysfunction in our governing institutions. This dysfunction is the country’s greatest crisis. No problem, policy or politician is immune from its corrosive effects. It hurts the economy and U.S. standing in the world, and it fuels the malaise that has led a record percentage of Americans to perceive a nation in decline.

This would be good politics were the President to be bolder than his normal apparent cautious self. The Republicans would be willing sit down and talk turkey on this one. They wouldn’t have any choice as they’ve spent years talking about this topic. There is room here for some compromise and constructive policy gains for both sides.

There are three major policy areas where President Obama is already within striking distance of a deal with Republicans in Congress: tax reform, trade and immigration. Each would be a heavy lift, but all are achievable.

These are sensible suggestions that were discussed in my previous post mentioned above. So does Obama have the fight in him make the next two years a success and define his legacy? McLarty says yes but stops short of laying out specific reasons.

Critics of President Obama, including some who have served in his administration—including, most recently, former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta —have questioned whether he has the temperament to lead a divided nation in a time of international dangers and domestic gridlock. While I believe he has the discipline and skill to do so, Mr. Obama is a complex figure operating in complex times, and debate over his performance will continue through his last day in office, more than 800 days from today.

The euphoria of 2008 -09 have long gone and it must be said that Obama must take his share of the blame for creating so much hype in the 2008 election campaign. No President can possibly live up to such high expectations and maintain it for 8 years. There is a chance though for Barack Obama to finish with a flourish if he’s good enough.

 

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