Second-term presidencies are an opportunity for bipartisan compromise. The institutional stars are in alignment to address long-range problems not amenable in other circumstances.
The president is barred from running for a third term and thus does not have to worry about his next campaign. In Congress, members of the president’s party, with some reason to fear losses in the off-year election, may be willing to compromise before their bargaining leverage weakens.
Members of the opposition party may be more willing also, since their hopes of getting a new president of their own party have been at least temporarily dashed.
Second-term presidents over the last generation have tried, with varying results, to achieve breakthroughs. Ronald Reagan, after cutting tax rates in his first term, called for further cuts combined with elimination of tax preferences that had encrusted the tax code.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski and Senate Finance Chairman Bob Packwood — a Democrat and a Republican — achieved a historic breakthrough with the tax reform legislation of 1986, thanks in part to intensive coaching from Treasury Secretary James Baker.
Bill Clinton, re-elected in no small measure because of his acceptance of Republican welfare reform legislation, negotiated long and hard with Speaker Newt Gingrich. Both men’s staffers feared that their discursive principals would give away too much.
But they reached a grand bargain on Medicare and, with help from a gusher of revenue from the tech boom, a pathway to balanced budgets.
Unfortunately, their discussions of Social Security were terminated by the outbreak of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The stars abruptly fell out of alignment.
Most Republicans felt obliged to impeach a president who had lied under oath in a federal court proceeding. Most Democrats felt obliged to defend a president whose misconduct seemed unrelated to his official duties.
George W. Bush also tried for bipartisan reform in his second term. It was obvious then (as it is now) that Social Security was on an unsustainable trajectory. Benefits were set to exceed revenues (as they have) and the onrush of Baby Boom retirees was just ahead.
Bush laid the groundwork by privately negotiating with Democratic lawmakers and with interest groups concerned about the elderly. He had hopes they would come around.
But in 2005, with disorder in the streets of Baghdad and New Orleans, Bush’s job approval sank. Senate Democrats relished campaigning one more cycle on Social Security, and House Republicans were unwilling to go ahead without any chance of Senate approval. The Republicans suffered a “thumping” in the 2006 election, leaving the stars far out of alignment.
Like Reagan, Clinton and Bush, Barack Obama has at times acknowledged the long-term unsustainability of current programs. The tax code has become encrusted with preferences once again, Social Security is still facing stress and Medicare threatens to gobble up larger and larger shares of the nation’s economy.
Entitlements threaten to squeeze out domestic spending that Democrats favor. And, as former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta argued in the Wall Street Journal, the sequester cuts are hobbling the military as foreign threats increase.
But in his second term, Obama has shown zero interest in bipartisan reform. He campaigns on mini-issues such as the minimum wage and patches up Obamacare with executive orders that put him on the cusp of ignoring his constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws.
Some stars are in alignment. Old campaign ploys are out of date. Democrats’ attempts to win the elderly vote on Medicare and Social Security failed in 2012. Republicans have accepted an increase in high earners’ tax rates.
And House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp has come forward with a serious tax reform proposal.
But Obama seems uninterested. He sent Camp’s negotiating partner, Finance Chairman Max Baucus, to China. He has stayed in campaign mode since he broke up the “grand bargain” talks with Speaker John Boehner by upping the ante in August 2011.
He let Russia know that “after my election I have more flexibility” — with results now grimly apparent. But he has not shown more flexibility toward congressional Republicans.
Now the prospect of a special House committee investigating the White House’s attempt to obfuscate the Benghazi attacks threatens to throw the stars further out of alignment.
Only once before has America had a third consecutive re-elected president — James Monroe. His presidency became known as the Era of Good Feelings.
Historians will need another label for this one.
Michael Barone, senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner, where this article first appeared, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.