Opinion: Obama may be transitional figure

December 5, 2012


We learned almost nothing about Barack Obama’s second term during his re-election campaign. We will learn almost everything about that second term in the next four weeks.

We already know that the president intends to be more deeply involved in foreign affairs beyond Iraq and Afghanistan; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mercy mission to the Middle East as Hamas rockets were being launched from Gaza and as Israeli troops were massing on the frontier signaled a more aggressive approach. Similar initiatives may be forthcoming, especially as Iran moves closer to possessing nuclear-weapons capability.

As fraught with danger as foreign affairs are, the domestic situation may be even more challenging. This is not the time to determine which of the two American parties is most like Hamas or Hezbollah, or Netanyahu or Ahmadinejad — such comparisons conceal more than they reveal. It is useful at this juncture merely to observe that the principals in Washington are intransigent by nature and their positions irreconcilable by definition.

Presidents get tough issues

But taking on the difficult is what the presidency is for. “No easy matters will ever come to you,” Dwight Eisenhower told his successor on the eve of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, and Obama has been fond of saying in 2012 that if a decision makes its way to his desk, it is because no one below him was able to resolve it. After the election, House Speaker John Boehner and even some of those tannin-eyed members of the Tea Party recognize this, and its corollary: At certain times in history, the presidency is pre-eminent.

This is one of those times, which is why most attention is on the White House and not the Capitol as the thorny economic issues facing Washington are rolled out, and, if this is a truly lucky nation, worked out.

Second terms are notoriously vexing, and this one could be more so than most. Obama begins his in a position weaker than that of any modern second-term president, especially Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who lost only two states in 1936) and Richard M. Nixon (who lost only one in 1972). Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both increased their margins of victory in their second campaigns.

A rare breed

Indeed, Obama is a member of a rare political species, a re-elected president with less of a mandate the second time around than the first. Of presidents elected since the nationalist period in the early 19th century, when the number of electoral votes fluctuated as the nation grew, Obama and Woodrow Wilson are the only presidents to be in that position.

Obama is pushing against history (and, more importantly, his own inclinations) in another vital area. The story of America since the election of Franklin Roosevelt is the expansion of the role of the federal government, especially in the economy and in establishing entitlements. Obama almost certainly will have to stand athwart history and halt the expansion of one or more legs of the entitlement stool — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. (A fourth leg is his own health care plan.)

This will please almost no one — not his own party, where a large faction wants entitlements to be excluded from any debt- and deficit-reduction formula, and not his rivals in the Republican Party, many of whom want to overhaul the programs and place them more on a free-market basis.

More than fiddling needed

This time the middle ground — fiddling with eligibility ages and moving the balance of the burden more to providers than beneficiaries — may not be enough. Those sorts of things, which seem palatable to us in December 2012, might have worked had Washington summoned the courage to impose them in 2010. We may look at those two years the way Churchill looked at the period between the ascension of Hitler and the Munich agreement: the years the locusts ate.

The locusts ate a lot of the cabbage Washington could have recovered on the revenue side as well. The usual calculus (closing loopholes and tax breaks, which the left supports, in exchange for lowering rates, which the right supports) is imbedded in the capital climate, but like the weather, it is a matter that everyone talks about and nobody does anything about.

The jarring news for the political class: Climate change is real, and Washington is under water.

It seems like years ago, but it was only yesterday (really, only a month ago) that everyone — the candidates, the commentariat, common folks full of common sense — was saying that the 2012 election was one of the most important in our lifetimes. We say that sort of rubbish every four years, when in fact we should recognize what the great student of the presidency Richard Neustadt taught us, but what we never learned: Presidents don’t have all that much power. Mostly they have the power, or really the potential, to persuade. That is Obama’s task now.

Election settled little

In truth, the 2012 election settled little. This is not what conservatives, who feel that all the buoys of national life have moved, nor what liberals, who feel America’s new natural state of governance is fundamentally progressive, believe, but it may be true. We are back where we were during the torrid 44 days of budget negotiations in summer 2011, only the situation is ever more dire, in part because those six weeks produced nothing. Washington didn’t kick the problem down the road; it kicked it into a ditch.

Conservatives hope Obama is merely a transitional figure. They may be right, but the transition may be as much in the president himself as in the body politic. He’s not running for re-election again, and the House Republicans are. He has the whip hand, and the House Republicans don’t.

But in horse racing, as in politics, it isn’t the possession of the whip but the use of it that matters. We know who has it. In a month’s time, we should know how he uses it.

— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


Paul R Getto 5 years ago

More than fiddling needed....

Sadly, both parties are willing to pick up the bow and watch Rome burn. Grow up, America.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years ago

Wall Street Manipulates Deficit Angst with 'Fiscal Cliff' Fear

Deficit hawks rely on media allies to report budget doom to advance their agenda of cutting Medicare and social security

by Dean Baker

"Many of the nation's most important news outlets openly embrace the agenda of the rich and powerful that colors its coverage of major economic issues. This is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than during the current budget standoff between President Obama and Congress, which the media routinely describes as the "fiscal cliff". This terminology seriously misrepresents the nature of the budget dispute, as everyone in the debate has acknowledged. There is no "cliff" currently facing the budget or the economy."

To read the rest--


Paul R Getto 5 years ago

Must be done for all of us, including the sainted middle class.

geekin_topekan 5 years ago

The so-called tax increase is nothing more than an end to an entitlement--welfare on the grandest scale.

If they cut your Mom's foodstamps L-O, are they "raising" her grocery bill or expecting her to contribute for herself? Same dif.

Briseis 5 years ago

New American Socialism. It's a system fueled by paper money, the constant expansion of debt, and a kind of corruption that's hard to police because it occurs within the boundaries of the law.

Like the European and totalitarian socialism of the last 100 years, New American Socialism harnesses the power of the State to grow and maintain production. Like in traditional socialism, the poor pay the costs of New American Socialism. But unlike socialist systems of the past, this new American version has one critical improvement…

In the New American Socialism, the power of the system produces private profits. In this way, it provides a huge incentive to entrepreneurs and politicians to work together on behalf of the system. This is what keeps the system going. This is what keeps it from collapsing upon itself. And this, unfortunately, is why the imbalances in the world economy will continue to grow until the entire global monetary system itself implodes…

New American Socialism began with the policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1933, FDR seized all the privately held gold in the U.S. and began creating the massive government programs necessary to implement socialism. To give you some idea of how much the federal government grew during FDR's reign, remember federal spending made up 3% of GDP in 1930 – a level that had been fairly consistent for most of America's history. Almost immediately after his election, he tripled federal spending to more than 10% of GDP. And by the time he died in office, federal spending reached 44% of GDP – an all-time high.


jhawkinsf 5 years ago

Using a sledgehammer approach by throwing out statistics without putting them into any context at all does nothing to further an intelligent discussion. So FDR increased federal spending upon taking office in 1933. Was there something significant happening in 1933, something like the Great Depression? Spending had skyrocketed by the time he died in office. Again, was there some major world event happening then, something that might account for such a large increase? Something like WW II.

Now if you believe federal spending should return to pre-Great Depression levels, or to whatever level you think correct, make your case. Others might counter with arguments of their own. But just saying 3% or 44% really says nothing.

volunteer 5 years ago

Less of a mandate? How about NO mandate. 51 million to 49 million is no mandate.

Paul R Getto 5 years ago

GW Bush 2004 Popular. 620,040,610 Electoral 286

Barak Obama Popular. 65,430,118 Electoral 332 As I recall, President Bush declared a mandate and "spent political capital."

jhawkinsf 5 years ago

I think there's a big whoopsee in your numbers.

jonas_opines 5 years ago

"51 million to 49 million is no mandate."

Well, it's actually 64.2 million to 60.1 million, but sure.

Of course, I recall that even narrower results in 2004 led to a blitzkrieg of "OMG Mandate!!" from many of the same posters (albeit with different names back then) who are now saying that there is none.

Other than that, I agree. It's just a new club for partisans to use.

Paul R Getto 5 years ago

Sadly a good point. We need much more participation in our precious system or it will become extinct.

verity 5 years ago

"I recall that even narrower results in 2004 led to a blitzkrieg of 'OMG Mandate!!'" I've been thinking the same thing. G W Bush certainly tooted that theory and used it to his advantage. Time for Obama to cash in and kick some . . . .

As to the "Voted for No one--40%," wasn't that close to the same amount that didn't vote in the gubernatorial election in Kansas in 2010? Doesn't matter, does it, if people neglect to vote?

jonas_opines 5 years ago

Argument stops and ends at "Not voting" =/= "voting for no one". Not in any absolute sense.

jonas_opines 5 years ago

Well, I'd bet that you're wrong. Safe bets, since there's no way we'll be able to test that theory.

You'd be better off simply realizing that your thoughts on the role of government, in their absolutist sense, are only shared by a tiny minority of people,. You'll get agreement from virtually everybody on a number of things you believe, and agreement from virtually nobody on everything you believe.

You'll claim they're wrong, or misled, or lied to, or any other thing to give you comfort. But whatever the case, you're still outnumbered.

Paul R Getto 5 years ago

Kemar Hinds, for the record. "In a world where conformity breeds acceptance, stand tall and go against the grain, because when every ones going the wrong way, you will be headed right"

Post meant to go wIth this from above. Bet Jesus felt this way sometimes

FalseFlag 5 years ago

Weapons of Mass Destruction Redux December 6, 2012

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

That’s what I’d say to the Western governments currently planning an invasion of Syria under the pretense that Bashar al-Assad is readying the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War.


jhawkinsf 5 years ago

What if you're wrong and Assad does use chemical weapons? What if some of those chemical weapons are fired into neighboring Turkey, a key NATO ally? What if it goes into neighboring Israel? Should Assad use those weapons, is there any real number of civilian losses we can describe as tolerable? What if the weapons fall into the hands of rebels who then use it against Alawite civilians.

It seems prudent to be ready for any and all possibilities.

FalseFlag 5 years ago

What if.

The same things were what if'd to promote Bush's war.

jhawkinsf 5 years ago

I just asked the questions. Would you care to answer? What if those chemical weapons are launched into Turkey or Israel? What if Assad uses the weapons against civilians? Is there no time at which we should intervene? Or do we let thousands die? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? What if the weapons fall into the hands of some of the nastier factions?

Or do we just mind our own business and hope there are no repercussions? Sort of like, sticking our head in the sand and hope nothing comes along and bites us in the butt?

FalseFlag 5 years ago

You are assuming that what Obama says is true. WMD' gas is being manufactured by Assad. Syria says they are not manufacturing gas.

Your what ifs is hyperbole.

This is the same Obama that said for weeks the Benghazi murders were because of a movie.

FalseFlag 5 years ago

Obama acting like Bush.

BEIRUT - Western powers are whipping up fears of a fateful move to the use of chemical weapons in Syria's civil war as a "pretext for intervention", President Bashar Assad's deputy foreign minister said on Thursday.

He spoke as Germany's cabinet approved stationing Patriot anti-missile batteries on Turkey's border with Syria, a step requiring deployment of NATO troops that Syria fears could permit imposition of a no-fly zone over its territory.


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