US President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha (left) and Malia, walk to Air Force One in Chicago as they return to the Washington DC and the White House. Photo Reuters.
Second terms have rarely been kind to American presidents.
Our last two-term leader, George W. Bush, ended his tenure
with a financial crash so disastrous his own party has tried
to erase him from memory.
Mr Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, was more successful, but
he spent much of his second term enmeshed in a sex scandal
and battling impeachment.
Even our greatest modern presidents had rocky second terms:
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D.
Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan are all revered more for what
they accomplished in their first four years than for their
What goes wrong in a second term?
The soaring ideas and idealism that brought a president
victory the first time yield to narrower, more experienced
calculations of what he can achieve in practice the second
time around. The aides who helped him succeed move on to
other jobs, and their successors in the second term often
look like the B-team.
A second-term president is a lame duck from election day on;
if Congress didn't fear him much before, it will soon fear
him even less. And if there's any scandal lurking in an
administration's closets, the second term is often when it
tumbles into view.
Richard M. Nixon's Watergate is the most famous case, but it
was only one of many: Mr Reagan had Iran-Contra; Mr Clinton
had Monica Lewinsky.
Can Barack Obama escape this iron rule of history?
Perhaps - but only if he finds a way to turn his own weakness
into an asset.
On the surface, the political foundation of Mr Obama's second
term looks weaker than those of his predecessors. All the
others - Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and
Bush - won more votes running for re-election than they had
the first time. They succeeded in enlarging their coalitions,
not shrinking them. Some won their second terms with
landslide margins: Mr Nixon and Mr Roosevelt with 61% of the
Mr Obama doesn't have that kind of overwhelming mandate.
In 2008, he won 28 states and 53% of the popular vote. This
year, once the dust settles, he appears likely to win fewer
states, with a near tie in the popular vote.
The electorate might well have fired him - except it never
warmed to his opponent.
The kind of campaign Mr Obama waged didn't build much of a
mandate either. His campaign slogan was almost content-free:
"Forward". Much of his pitch was negative, a promise not to
enact the conservative changes his opponent was proposing.
"We know what change looks like, and what he's selling ain't
it," Mr Obama said in his combative stump speeches.
His positive agenda - and he did have one, contrary to what
some critics say - was mostly a plea for a chance to "finish
the job," to complete the unfinished work of the first term.
But as a programme for his second term, it's markedly less
ambitious than the expansive goals he listed four years ago.
In his most serious policy discussion of the last month - his
interview with the Des Moines Register - Mr Obama said his
top priorities would be economic growth, deficit reduction
and investment in infrastructure, education and energy
Those goals are both less ambitious and less specific than
the ones set out in his first term, and liberals are likely
to see them as a retreat. But with a hostile House of
Representatives, it's not at all clear the president will be
able to make much progress even with a more modest set of
Like Mitt Romney, Mr Obama had little choice but to turn
toward the centre in the final weeks of the presidential
campaign. No matter how strong his base of Democratic voters,
Mr Obama needed compromise-loving independents to stick with
And Mr Obama has spent plenty of time in the past few weeks
talking to Mr Clinton, a supremely pragmatic president who
regularly enraged his party's liberal base whenever he
thought a lunge to the right might help him pass legislation
through a Republican-held Congress.
"I may be the only person in America, but I am far more
enthusiastic about President Obama this time than I was four
years ago," Mr Clinton said as he campaigned for the
president last week.
"He has the right philosophy," Mr Clinton said: "Co-operation
works better than conflict. Practical problem-solving is
better than ideological extremism."
Two factors will determine what kind of second term Mr Obama
has: One is what lessons Republicans draw from their stinging
defeat; the other is what lessons Mr Obama takes from the
narrowness of his victory.
If we're lucky, we will find we elected a different Mr Obama
from the one who won the presidency four years ago - not just
a greyer Mr Obama, but a wiser one, too.
- Doyle McManus