Barack Obama begins his second term of office on January 20 when, in a private
session, he will be sworn in. Because January 20 is a Sunday, the official
public inauguration will take place on January 21.
ceremony will be a high point for the Democratic Party. Obama is just the second
Democrat to be re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt more than a half century
However, prospects for the president securing a string of major
domestic policy success are not high, as was evidenced recently with the
problems reaching even a partial deal with Congress on the “fiscal cliff.”
Obama’s narrower margin of victory in 2012 than in 2008 gives him a weaker
electoral mandate. Moreover, Republicans (including the significant Tea Party
caucus), who were so at odds with his first-term agenda, have maintained their
firm grip of the House of Representatives, and a sizable minority in the
So Washington has the clear potential for four more years of
intense polarization and gridlock.
This, and several other factors, are
likely to encourage Obama, like numerous other second-term presidents in the
postwar period, to turn his focus toward foreign policy.
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 four
years in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting several core
priorities (as Obama did with health care and his economic stimulus package),
while key items that failed to secure a critical mass of support are rarely
To be sure, Obama will achieve some domestic policy success
in the next four years, including the possibility of reaching an 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.
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
This dynamic means policy initiative in Washington – if it
exists at all – can edge back to Congress.
The productiveness of second
terms can also be stymied by turnover of key personnel. Following reelection
success, there’s often a sizable departure of cabinet, White House and other
executive branch officials.
Already, several Cabinet members, including
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, have made
clear they will not serve in Obama’s second term. 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, new staff occasionally fail to
hit the ground running, and, where necessary, be confirmed by
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.
It remains to be
seen if any major scandals will affect the Obama administration. However, some
Republicans, including Senator John McCain, are already pressing Obama on what
they perceive as his team’s cover-up of the events surrounding the killing of
four US citizens in Libya, including the US ambassador, in September. McCain,
who was defeated by Obama in 2008, has even compared the affair to
Even if Obama escapes 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.
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,
especially if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is re-elected on January 22.
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 US troops from Iraq and the intended draw-down 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
Key threats on the horizon to maintaining this reorientation of
policy remain the possibility of further devastating attacks on the US homeland
from al-Qaida or a major surge of tension in 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
Andrew Hammond, an associate partner at Reputation-Inc, was a
former special adviser in the government of Tony Blair and a geopolitics
consultant at Oxford Analytica.