Opinion » Ted Rall

Four Bore Years

Second-term curse belies Obama's optimistic vision

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Breaking news: Barack Obama willing to compromise!

Everybody (translation: media types) is talking about an interview in which the president makes his case for re-election. A second term, he argues, would end the current gridlock between the Democratic White House and Republican Congress, leading to some sort of grand bargain--or at least a deal--that would improve the crappy economy.

Here's the money quote: "What I'm offering the American people is a balanced approach that the majority agrees with, including a lot of Republicans. And for me to be able to say to the Republicans, the election is over; you no longer need to be focused on trying to beat me; what you need to be focused on and what you should have been focused on from the start is how do we advance the American economy. I'm prepared to make a whole range of compromises, some of which I get criticized from the Democratic Party on, in order to make progress."

Liberal commentators scoffed, pointing out that Republicans who blocked Obama's slightly-left-of-Milton-Friedman agenda throughout his first term aren't going to be more likely to compromise during his second term. Furthermore, Obama is wrong about GOP tactics changing once he hits his term limit.

Nasty attack ads aside, it really isn't personal for them. Republican strategists will work to defeat whoever wins the Democratic nomination in 2016.

I couldn't help noticing two remarkable aspects to Obama's statement: First, it admits that he didn't get much done on jobs, unemployment and the economy--the issues that have consistently ranked as the voters' top concerns. This is a dangerous gambit. Blaming the other party for leaving a mess and for obstructionism has a poor record of electoral success; fair or not, voters tend to hold sitting presidents responsible.

Second, it asks us to assume that a president's second term is an opportunity. In fact, history suggests anything but. The vast majority of the signature legislative and policy achievements by U.S. presidents occurred at the beginning of their first terms.

The record of non-achievement of second terms is so grim that you have to wonder why presidents ever run for re-election. Why do these guys want a do-over so badly? Must be the free food and rent.

Whether Obama is aware of presidential history or just blowing smoke, you shouldn't expect much from a second term. If you're voting for Obama simply to keep Mitt Romney out, that's fine. But don't expect Obama to get a liberal agenda through Congress.

There are a couple of things Obama could do to mitigate the second-term curse. He could take his case directly to the American people, asking citizens to pressure Congress to push through popular agenda items.

Another way Obama and the Democrats could make the most of a second term would be to replicate what the Republicans did with Newt Gingrich's 1994 Contract with America, in other words, to state a list of policies and new laws that voters would effectively be endorsing if Obama wins.

After November, Democrats would then be able to argue that they have a direct mandate for their agenda.

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