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Presidents who enjoy successful second terms usually pull fresh thinking into their inner circles and maintain close working relations with Congress. Barack Obama has shown little inclination to do either.
As the president and his buttoned-up core of advisers lay the groundwork for another term, their first public engagements with lawmakers are confrontations: demanding Republican concessions over tax increases and spending cuts, and fighting with senators over the possible elevation to secretary of state of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, an Obama loyalist and close adviser since his first presidential campaign.
The president’s ability to overcome the limitations of his governing style will help determine the success of his new term and his ability to deal with issues such as the nation’s long- term debt, immigration laws and climate change.
“There’s a tendency to develop a presidential bubble,” said John Burke, a political science professor at the University of Vermont who has studied presidential transitions. “A second term gives you an opportunity to break through that. No one’s embarrassed if there’s change in a second term, so the president has a window of opportunity.”
Relations with Congress have troubled second-term presidents “more than any other” circumstance, with almost all of them achieving less legislative success than in their first term, said Alfred Zacher, author of “Presidential Power in Troubled Second Terms.” President Bill Clinton cited lessons Zacher drew in his book at a news conference after his 1996 re- election.
Zacher said working relationships with Congress were ingredients of all seven second-term presidencies he classified as successful: Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, James Madison and George Washington.
Obama’s success with Congress partly will depend on his ability to reach out, which some lawmakers say he has failed to do.
Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of only three Republicans in that chamber to support Obama’s 2009 economic- stimulus legislation, said she urged the president at the time to engage more with lawmakers. She said she’s seen no evidence he has heeded her advice since.
“Hopefully, that will change with the new administration because that’s going to be critical to his success,” Snowe, who is retiring, said in an interview. “You can’t overstate it, and there’s no substitute for that.”
According to three people who served in senior positions, even top players within the Obama administration sometimes have difficulty penetrating a tight-knit inner circle bound to the president by shared experience in a 2008 presidential campaign that began as an unlikely quest to break the barriers of race and upset the Clintons, his party’s reigning dynasty. The three agreed to speak only on background because they aren’t authorized to discuss White House deliberations.
Obama’s core advisers include David Plouffe and David Axelrod, political strategists who have worked with him since his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign; Pete Rouse, who joined his team in 2004 as his U.S. Senate chief of staff; and Valerie Jarrett, a family friend and confidante who has stood by Obama since she helped him navigate his entry into Chicago politics.
His three White House chiefs of staff have included two familiar figures from Chicago politics -- current Mayor Rahm Emanuel and William Daley, brother of the former mayor -- and Obama’s own former budget chief, Jack Lew.
Lew, the current White House chief of staff, is a leading contender to take the place of Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who has said he intends to leave.
While Obama scored legislative wins in his first two years in office when Democrats controlled Congress -- the stimulus plan, a health-care overhaul, a financial-regulatory package, repeal of the ban on gays openly serving in the military -- he has since been locked in an impasse with Republicans.
During the past two years, he has relied on a series of executive actions to advance his agenda.
Obama turned to his executive authority to stop deportations of most illegal aliens brought to the U.S. as children, halt the Keystone XL pipeline, raise automobile fuel- efficiency standards and ease repayment terms for student loans.
He offered assurances at a Nov. 14 news conference that he is aware of the pitfalls presidents face after re-election, including misreading their mandate from voters. “I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” he said, and am “very cautious about that.”
The White House didn't respond to an opportunity to comment on this story.
Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist with close ties to the White House, said Obama’s advisers have concluded that re- elected presidents typically have just 12-18 months to enact domestic priorities. After that, the political demands of midterm elections and then the next presidential campaign make negotiations with congressional leaders more difficult.
The demand to act quickly on a second-term Obama agenda argues against too much disruption in the administration’s key players, Elmendorf said.
“I think they believe in order to do that you have to have a team that he’s worked with and is comfortable with, so you don’t have a learning curve,” Elmendorf said.
Obama has a “more inward focused” personal style than presidents such as Clinton and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom relentlessly worked the phones in the Oval Office, said William Galston, a former Clinton domestic policy adviser.
“If you had a continuum with Clinton and LBJ on one end, Obama would be closer to the other end on external consultation,” said Galston, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Clinton’s recruitment of investment banker Erskine Bowles as White House chief of staff at the beginning of his second term is an example of a new senior player who brought both fresh perspective and improved relations with Congress, said Burke, author of “Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice.” Bowles’s contributions included helping to negotiate budget-balancing legislation with Republicans, Burke said.
George W. Bush’s second term offers a counter-example, Burke said. After his 2004 re-election, he kept his national security team largely intact -- an exception was the departure of the dissenting voice of Secretary of State Colin Powell -- and retained key domestic figures such as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and senior political adviser Karl Rove.
After a string of legislative successes in Bush’s first term, including tax cuts, an overhaul of federal education policy, and a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, his second- term priorities of overhauling Social Security and immigration law foundered.
The administration fumbled its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and public support for the war in Iraq eroded. Bush’s job-approval rating plunged to 37 percent in the Gallup Poll by March 13-16, 2006, just before Card’s resignation.
“Bush’s sense was to keep his team intact, but I don’t think he looked at the upside of revitalizing his administration by bringing in new people,” Burke said.
Even with Clinton’s eventual impeachment by House Republicans after the revelation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he won passage of legislation that brought the federal budget into surplus. Reagan got approval of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 through negotiations with Democratic congressional leaders. Eisenhower worked out legislative deals with Democrat Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, including a 1957 civil rights bill, the first such legislation since the Reconstruction era.
Even George Washington, re-elected without opposition in 1792, had to navigate differences with members of Congress. He managed to get the two-thirds Senate majority needed for ratification of the Jay Treaty, an accord negotiated by Chief Justice John Jay to settle differences with Great Britain left over from the U.S. War of Independence. Though it was unpopular, Washington said it was necessary to prevent another war.
“That is the age-old battle for dominance between the two branches of government,” Zacher said.
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