Washington Missile defense isn’t the only area in which President Barack Obama will have “more flexibility” if he’s re-elected. Immigration, the Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline, gay marriage, tax policy and other issues could invite bold initiatives by a president who knows he will never run for office again, especially if his party gains ground in congressional elections.
For now, however, Obama is postponing action on several difficult issues, knowing that Republicans are determined to deny him political victories a few months before their chance to oust him. He’s hardly the first to adopt that strategy.
Obama expressed a fundamental truth when he quietly told Russia’s president that he will have “more flexibility” to deal with the touchy issue of missile defense after the Nov. 6 election — if Obama wins, that is. The statement might have raised few eyebrows had Obama made it nonchalantly to a U.S. audience. Instead, it kicked up a fuss because Obama thought the microphones were off when he spoke with Dmitry Medvedev in South Korea, and because Obama seemed to take his re-election for granted.
Presidents traditionally ease their foot from the gas pedal in their fourth year, when re-election politics overshadow almost everything.
President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, played small-ball in 1996, proposing school uniforms and midnight basketball programs after previously tackling much tougher issues such as welfare cuts and targeted tax increases (successfully) and a major health care overhaul (unsuccessfully).
President George W. Bush, a Republican, talked vaguely of overhauling Social Security during his 2004 re-election campaign, and then found the public wasn’t ready for major changes after he won. Had he emphasized the proposed revisions during his campaign, Democrats’ cries of “privatization” might have tipped the close election to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
“No president of either party has any flexibility whatsoever during a re-election year,” said Dan Schnur, a former GOP presidential aide who teaches political science at the University of Southern California.
“Your honeymoon is long gone,” he said. “Everything you do will be judged strictly in a political context. And anything you do that’s remotely unpopular could cost you the election.”
Obama has been blunt about election-year constraints. At a March 6 news conference, he acknowledged Hispanic supporters’ anger over his failure to achieve immigration changes, including paths to legal status for some illegal immigrants.
Obama, foreshadowing what he told Medvedev, said a presidential election can change the policy landscape.
“My hope is that, after this election, the Latino community will have sent a strong message that they want a bipartisan effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” he told reporters.