The latest flash point between the White House and Congress, sequestration, looks set to trigger on Friday. There seems little possibility of an agreement to resolve the fiscal stalemate, meaning billions of dollars in automatic cuts in federal government spending will begin.
The impact will grow with time, unless a deal is reached, with the Pentagon the hardest single hit department with around $43 billion of reductions in the current fiscal year alone. This would mean cuts to military training, weapons acquisition and maintenance of approximately 13% in the period before Sept 30.
Especially following the tortuous fiscal cliff negotiations, what the sequestration episode underlines is how hard it will be for Obama to secure major domestic policy success in his second term. Republicans (including the significant Tea Party caucus), who were so at odds with the president’s first-term agenda, have maintained their firm grip of the House of Representatives, and retain a sizeable minority in the Senate.
The fact that Obama’s second term, from the vantage point of domestic policy, may not be a productive one is not unusual for re-elected incumbents. During their first period in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting several core priorities (as Obama did with health care and his economic stimulus package).
To be sure, Obama will achieve some further domestic policy success over the next four years, including the possibility of agreement with Congress on immigration reform. However, many re-elected presidents in the postwar era have found it difficult to acquire momentum behind an array of significant new legislative measures, and Obama will probably be no different.
In part, this is because the party of re-elected presidents often hold a weaker position in Congress in second presidential terms of office. Thus, Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972 and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses where both the House of Representatives and Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents.
The productiveness of second terms can also be stymied by turnover of key personnel. Following re-election success, there’s a sizable departure of cabinet, White House and other executive branch officials. The problem for the president is that it is not always easy to recruit figures of the same status and caliber as those that leave and even when this happens, they can fail to hit the ground running.
Two other issues have undercut the productiveness of second-term presidencies. First, re-elected administrations have often been affected by scandals (although the events that trigger the scandals can happen during first terms). Thus, Watergate ended the Nixon administration in 1974, Iran-contra badly damaged the Reagan White House, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998.
Even if Obama and his administration escape significant scandal, he won’t be able to avoid the lame-duck factor. Since he can’t seek more than two terms, political focus will inevitably be diverted elsewhere, particularly after the 2014 congressional elections when the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into gear.
This overall domestic policy context means that Obama is likely to place increasing emphasis on foreign policy in the next four years. This is especially likely if the economic recovery builds pace in coming months.
Foreign policy could become an especially strong point of focus almost immediately if Israel ups the ante with Iran on the latter’s nuclear program. An Israeli strike, with or without the support of Washington, remains a real possibility in 2013. This issue thus has the potential to pose major headaches for Obama, and will require extremely skilled statesmanship.
A stress on foreign policy will be reinforced by a desire to establish a legacy. Previous presidents have often seen foreign policy initiatives as a key part of the legacy they wish to build; Clinton, for instance, devoted much of his second term trying to secure a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis.
A decade and a half later, with still no deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, other areas are just as key to any eventual foreign policy legacy for Obama. In particular, following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the intended drawdown in Afghanistan, the president will seek to continue his post-9/11 reorientation of foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region and other strategic high-growth markets.
Key threats on the horizon to maintaining this reorientation of policy remain the possibility of further devastating attacks on the U.S. homeland from al-Qaida, or a major surge of tension in North Africa or the Middle East, perhaps emanating from Israeli-Iranian conflict or the implosion of Syria. However, these scenarios would only reinforce Obama’s focus on foreign policy in his second term.