Carl Leubsdorf — Obama’s opportunities for historic progress


Recent second presidential terms have been difficult. Ronald Reagan became enmeshed in the Iran-contra scandal; Bill Clinton was impeached, though not convicted; and George W. Bush’s popularity cratered, thanks to two mismanaged foreign wars, mishandled hurricane relief and a collapsing domestic economy.

Yet, every American president since Rutherford Hayes has sought a second term. And the traumas of Barack Obama’s controversy-filled first four years failed to prevent him from winning re-election by the substantial margin of 5 million votes, the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win twice with at least 51 percent.

Now, despite formidable barriers in an antagonistic Republican House and a closely divided though sympathetic Senate, the fundamentals are set for Obama to have a historic second term that could bolster his long-term standing beyond his place as the nation’s first non-white president.

It won’t be easy, and many difficult moments will complicate the path from here to 2016, like last week’s last-minute fiscal cliff fix and the forthcoming battle over federal spending and the debt ceiling.

But there’s a reasonable chance that, when Obama’s presidency is over and some of the highly publicized but momentary skirmishes fade into history, his record will include the following:

• An economy that has expanded steadily from the deep recession he inherited, providing the kind of historic boost that the 1980s economic growth gave Reagan and the 1990s boom gave Clinton and making such controversial initiatives as his 2009 economic stimulus look better.

As usual, the state of the economy may prove the single most important measure of Obama’s presidential success.

And his economic record will look even better if he and congressional Republicans can make significant strides in curbing the budget deficit, including the long-term cost of such entitlement programs as Social Security and Medicare. As lawmakers learned from working with Clinton on budget balancing and Reagan on tax reform, the president gets the main credit for any ultimate successes, regardless of where the initial initiatives came from.

• A bipartisan solution to the decades-long immigration issue, combining the increased border security of recent years with procedures to enable millions who entered the United States illegally to gain some sort of legal status. Republicans have suffered at the polls from their anti-immigration stance, making it very much in their interest to help resolve the long deadlock on this issue.

• An Affordable Care Act that has started to achieve its promise of expanding insurance coverage and slowing cost increases for health care. This may require both administrative and legislative revisions in the far-from-perfect 2010 law and greater state acquiescence than initially threatened but Obama’s re-election and last year’s Supreme Court decision ensure that the basic law will survive.

• Completion of his 2008 promise to extricate the United States from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and reduce the number of U.S. troops abroad. Obama’s choice of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary shows his determination to pursue a policy that decreases the likelihood of future foreign military involvements, even when we favor one side as in the case of Libya and Syria.

One lesson of Obama’s first term was the danger of trying to force lawmakers to do too much. That’s why many analysts believe, while Obama hopes for significant action on gun control, he may not spend too much capital on an issue that proved a political loser for the Democrats in the 1990s.

Beyond that, the next three years are filled with partisan landmines that could derail his hopes on various fronts, not to mention the unexpected crises that often distract presidents from their goals. But the opportunities for historic progress are also present if the president can preside over a steady economic expansion and make significant strides towards resolving the long-standing deficit, immigration and health care problems.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.