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The Obama enigma: How would a hyper-cautious risk-taker approach a second term?

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo News

Mitt Romney has aired a series of gauzy TV spots trying to help voters get over the perceptual challenge of imagining him in the Oval Office. “What would a Romney presidency be like?” asks the off-screen male narrator in a thrilled tone implying that any day now you too could be a partner at Bain Capital. The specifics in the Romney ads are GOP boilerplate (“End Obama Era of Big Government”), but what is really being peddled is Reaganite optimism (“It’s the feeling we’ll have that our country’s back”).

All this is standard fare for the out-of-office candidate in economic hard times. Similar upbeat sentiments were displayed in the iconic Barack Obama 2008 campaign poster and by Bill Clinton ending his 1992 convention speech with a play off the name of his boyhood home in Arkansas, “I still believe in a place called Hope.” But incumbent presidents running for a second term (Ronald Reagan 1984 aside) cannot get away with offering voters tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Just imagine Obama borrowing his reelection slogan from 1950s British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: “You never had it so good.”

In truth, except for extreme partisans on both sides, it is difficult to conjure up an Obama second term. Yes, we can mentally see him in the Oval Office in 2016, maybe a little greyer than today, but fundamentally the same person. We can hear his campaign rhetoric: “I’m running for president because I want to do something about our debts and our deficits in a balanced and responsible way,” the president declared at a fund-raiser Tuesday night in Philadelphia. (Memo to Obama speechwriters: Words like “balanced” and “responsible” rarely get the blood rushing in partisan politics.) But the reality of a reelected President Obama somehow remains frustratingly out of reach. 

I have been wrestling with the Obama second-term mystery – and will continue to do so in this column (along with scrutinizing Romney) until the election. Governing in modern times is not a linear exercise in which you can project the future simply based on a straight-line extension of the present. Over the past four decades, all two-term presidencies have been mired in unexpected sadness and often scandal: Richard Nixon (Watergate), Reagan (Iran-contra), Clinton (Monica Lewinsky and impeachment) and George W. Bush (war weariness, Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown). On the other hand, whoever is elected in 2012 – and no matter what policies he pursues – may eventually preside over a return to robust economic growth as the world rebounds from the longest downturn since the Depression.

The complexity and elusiveness of Obama, even after 41 months in the White House, is a motif of two ambitious recent journalistic attempts to explain him. In the current issue of The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza, the magazine’s Washington correspondent, confronts the question directly in a 12-page article subtitled, “What would Obama do if reelected?” Lizza’s short answer, based on the likely tightness of the election, can be summarized in this sentence: “Whatever a mandate is, Obama won’t have one.”

David Maraniss, the author of the long-awaited biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” which ends with the future president heading to Harvard Law School at age 27, comes at things obliquely. Again and again, Maraniss marvels at the quirks of fate that produced Obama. He devotes hundreds of novelistic pages to bringing together Stanley Ann Dunham (the unhappy 17-year-old daughter of an itinerant furniture salesman) and Barack Hussein Obama (the already married non-believing son of a Kenyan convert to Islam) in introductory Russian class at the University of Hawaii.

To Maraniss, the recurring theme in Obama’s biography is “his determination to avoid life’s traps.” That partly explains Obama’s “caution” and “his tendency to hold back and survey life like a chessboard, looking for where he might get checkmated,” in Maraniss’s words. Jerry Kellman, who hired the youthful Obama as a community organizer in Chicago, told Maraniss in one of the most revealing quotes in the book that his protégé “was one of the most cautious people I’ve ever met in my life. He was not unwilling to take risks, but was this strange combination of someone who would have to weigh everything to death, and then take a dramatic risk at the end.”

So how would a hyper-cautious risk-taker approach a second term wrested from a divided electorate?

Much would depend, as Lizza makes clear, on the makeup of the new Congress and the political lessons that the Republicans derive from Obama’s reelection. Both Obama and Romney have so far failed to prepare voters for the epic economic reckoning that is slated to occur during the 55-day lame-duck period between the election and the end of 2012. Obama (his term ends on January 20) and the current Congress will have to reach agreement to prevent the expiration of all the Bush tax cuts, the elimination of the 2-percent temporary reduction in payroll taxes, the end of extended unemployment benefits and an automatic $110-billion slash in both domestic spending and the Pentagon budget. At stake is about $500 billion, which is roughly 3 percent of the entire economy.

How that Great Reckoning will play out – along with another congressional fight over the federal debt ceiling looming in early 2013 -- will partly shape the economic contours of the next four years. The possibilities range from a grand bargain in which the White House and congressional Republicans give up ground on taxes and spending to a continuation of the scorched-earth politics that have repeatedly put the economy in jeopardy. Perhaps the best chance for an agreement is if both Obama and the Republicans feel chastened by the election returns.

Lizza, who interviewed top presidential advisers, envisions a reelected Obama able to prevail on one major domestic policy issue before everything halts for the 2014 elections. (A second-term president almost invariably loses congressional seats during his sixth year in office). The squishiness of Obama’s governing vision shines through as his advisers bounce from refinancing the housing market to enacting a carbon tax to pursuing immigration reform to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. It is axiomatic in politics that if everything is a top priority then nothing really is. And right now, the Obama agenda is mostly a laundry list of familiar Democratic if-only nostrums.

Make no mistake, it is still early in the campaign season for both Obama and Romney to articulate their innermost dreams about the presidency. If their Oval Office roadmaps for 2013 still seem murky after the convention acceptance speeches, then there will be ample reason for complaint. But there is a particular risk for Obama as the incumbent in keeping his plans under wraps for too long. In 2005, Bush built his second-term domestic agenda around Social Security privatization – with disastrous results, in part, because he had never stressed the issue during the 2004 campaign.

In his biography, Maraniss recounts a disastrous meeting that Obama held with black ministers as an apprentice community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. (A bowdlerized version of this incident appears in Obama’s autobiography, “Dreams from My Father.”) Afterwards, Obama said, “Let’s make sure we understand what just went on so we can go from here and not make this kind of mistake again.”

With the economy sputtering and health-care reform hanging by a thread before the Supreme Court, that can also serve as a partial description of Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office. What the president has learned from his mistakes is ultimately the biggest question if the voters grant Obama a second term.