Has Barack Obama already caught a terminal case of the second-term curse? Still too early to diagnose.
But such an affliction will inevitably suffocate all his remaining legislative aspirations. The evidence from the past four decades leads to an unavoidable prognosis: The man’s got a little more than a year left, at most.
Each of the four previous re-elected presidents saw their juice on Capitol Hill run out well before their second-term congressional midterms. And there’s no empirical reason to believe that Obama will be able to make his political capital last any longer in this divided and divisive Congress.
Richard M. Nixon was able to keep alive his top priorities, which were about taking more power for himself at the expense of Congress, for only four months in 1973. Then the Senate Watergate Committee convened, galvanizing the nation’s interest in what the president knew and how long he’d known it.
Ronald Reagan decided to make a tax code overhaul the top domestic priority of his second term in May 1985, and he was able to revel in the climatic votes a year later. After that, the Iran-Contra scandal is all the historians have to say about the remainder of his presidency.
Bill Clinton pushed a landmark, bipartisan agreement on plans for balancing the federal budget through Congress in August 1997 and got to work on a typically disparate collection of other priorities. Traction for virtually all of them disappeared for good the following January, after the nation learned Monica Lewinsky’s name.
George W. Bush was about to see his choice elevated to chief justice of the United States on Labor Day 2005, and there was still a fighting chance Congress would permit his top second-term wish of getting some Social Security savings invested in the markets. His political capital evaporated immediately thereafter, when fury at his arms-length response to Hurricane Katrina combined with imploding support for the Iraq War.
For Obama, the lessons of his recent two-term predecessors is this: Even if he succeeds in weathering the current scandalous-sounding triple whammy — the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the seizing of journalists’ phone records, the shifting story about the Libya consulate attack — the president will be in the clear no longer than Election Day 2014. By then his legislative goals will have either been met or sidetracked for the duration. Full story