Throughout his first term as President, Barack Obama demonstrated grave limitations in his ability to bargain with Congress. Throughout the first two years, with overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, the President largely abandoned his agenda to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. The first two trillion -dollar budgets , the near-trillion -dollar stimulus package and the humungous Obamacare legislation all passed into law with the President sidelined, watching on as though he were a supportive spectator.
In 2010, the electoral guillotine removed Nancy Pelosi from the Speakership and stalemate followed. The President headed out into a two year campaign for re-election. In his natural habitat, shaking hands with admirers, while venting about Republicans, the President thrived, and won re-election, albeit with a slender 50.7 per cent majority of the popular vote.
Back in office, Barack Obama shows that he has learned nothing about the political game. Confronted with the same potential stalemate in Congress, Obama simply does not possess the smarts to negotiate effectively with a chastened opposition. Smash-face football is the only participation that he knows. Sometimes, when teams play smash-ball, their own players are carried off the field on stretchers.
‘What can you offer me in return for $800 billion in tax hikes?’ asks the Speaker of the House. ‘Nothing. I get that for free,’ responds Obama, and if you do not give me a lot more, I shall deride you and your entire Party personally in my State of the Union Address.’ Only dictators and Mafia mobster bosses talk that language with any expectation of negotiating success.
The fiscal cliff hangs as a major immediate impediment over Obama’s second term. If he forces a penal settlement, in order to avoid the cliff, his second term will indeed be cold and unforgiving, as the Republican Party unites to thwart all his major policy initiatives. And there is no third strike for a United States President.
If Obama’s bargaining skills are so limited as to allow the fiscal cliff to intercede, the economy will take a hit, and most of his second term will be absorbed in cleaning up the resulting mess. The debt ceiling will be used against him by the opposition to limit the extent of his redistribion policies. And the credit rating agencies will make sure that the burden of the $16 trillion plus US debt rises steeply on all Americans.
Even for great presidents, second terms tend to be harder than first terms, not least because the President is a lame duck, and his own party increasingly must look to its own future electoral interests. President Eisehower won re-election in a landslide in 1956, as did President Reagan in 1984; yet they both struggled in their second terms. President Obama won re-election by a much narrower margin, and he is far from rated as a great president. If he fails to wake up and smell the coffee, he will end up ranked right down at the bottom of the heap. Surely that was not his initial goal.