Published on TheHill.com on May 14, 2013
“The statesman’s duty is to bridge the gap between his nation’s experience and his vision. If he gets too far out ahead of his people, he will lose his mandate; if he confines himself to the conventional, he will lose control over events.” — Henry Kissinger, in his 1982 book Years of Upheaval
President Obama is losing control over events. The single greatest power a president has is to determine the national agenda — to set the table and decide on the menu. But second-term presidents often find themselves unable to do so, as Obama is finding out now.
The popularly accepted reason for their inability is that they become “lame ducks” without the possibility of reelection, consigned to irrelevance by the 22nd Amendment.
But that’s not the reason, in my experience.
Kissinger has it right. They hew too close to the conventional and therefore lose control over events.
Most presidents are first elected with an ambitious agenda. Their electoral mandate usually propels them to success and the enactment of their proposals.
By the time the second term comes, the president can offer only a meal of leftovers, items not sufficiently popular or compelling to have been enacted in the first term. This fare is insufficient to satisfy the ravenous appetite for news and action in Washington, and the president ends up eating a meal someone else — usually the opposition — cooked up for him.
So it was with former President Nixon. He got us out of Vietnam, more or less, in his first term and had no vision for his second, so he succumbed to the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan didn’t do much better. He achieved his ambitious agenda during his first term — restore the economy, strengthen America, lower taxes — but floundered in Iran-Contra in his second term. Bill Clinton balanced the budget and reformed welfare in the first part of his presidency only to become mired in the Lewinsky scandal in his second. George W. Bush cut taxes and overthrew the Taliban in his first four years but could not extricate himself from Iraq in his second. And now Obama, having passed healthcare and financial reforms, pulled out of Iraq and drawn down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, finds himself ensnared in the Benghazi and IRS scandals and taking fire over the shoddy implementation of ObamaCare.
This descent into the morass of a Washington scandal is due both to his ineptitude in responding to criticism and his inability to captivate the nation’s attention with a coherent and attractive second-term agenda. He cannot embrace immigration reform as his own for fear of killing it. To pass, the bill must be bipartisan from its inception, and presidential leadership can only muck things up. His record on the economy surely is not enough to pull him up — and might still be enough to pull him down.
He is destined to twist slowly in the wind, losing the House and perhaps the Senate in 2014, buffeted by the scandal du jour.
His “I didn’t know it was happening” defense on the IRS scandal, the AP scandal and the failure to send troops to rescue our men in Benghazi, Libya, all rests, ultimately, on the hope that nobody sent him a compromising email. Just as Nixon was destroyed by his own tapes, emails today offer the same opportunity for mayhem. But, unlike a tape, outsiders can hack into email accounts and spew them all over the news media. Obama’s defense leaves him vulnerable to leaks on the one hand and subpoenas on the other.
But his second-term blues are attributable, as most are, to his first-term success in passing his agenda. He’s got nothing left in the tank.
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