Presidential second terms have a bad name. The traditional view is that presidents are stuck with first-term leftovers on their plates and a calendar that calls on them to get any legislation through Congress in the first 18 to 24 months. After that, few in Congress listen because the chief executive's time in office is limited.
President George W. Bush discovered the limits of his authority with his signature second term legislative efforts on Social Security and then immigration reform. President Bush made little progress gathering support for personal retirement accounts for Social Security, despite five months spent campaigning for the program in 2005; in the end, he refocused his attention on an alternative policy effort. On immigration, he made a similar push for a combination of border security initiatives and a temporary worker program. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 died in June of that year; immigration supporters could not muster even a Senate majority for the legislation.
Despite this, the final four presidential years for President Barack Obama need not be a hopeless time. Any period of change represents opportunities. For him, these include finishing first-term business, cementing earlier victories through the implementation of legislation, bringing in a fresh team experienced in governing, and folding in new agenda items.
How can President Obama and his team take advantage of his opportunities? First, working in his favor is an environment where the economy is slowly on the upswing, with unemployment steadily going down, consumer confidence and housing construction on the rise, and a move toward energy self-sufficiency. Second, he won on an agenda of support for the middle class, with pledges not to increase their taxes and support for education, energy, and immigration programs benefiting many of them. In his re-election, he had strong support across a broad variety of constituencies and picked up seats in the House and Senate. Republican congressional leaders are likely to support some types of legislation party members failed to support in earlier years, such as immigration legislation.
Here's what he needs to do:
•Maintain the threads of his presidency: In April 2009, President Obama laid out his "vision for America's future." The "Five Pillars" he referred to as keys to the economy are as relevant today. Those pillars are: new rules for Wall Street; investment in education, especially recruiting math and science teachers; investments in renewable energy; health care savings; and savings from the budget that will bring down the debt. He is now in a position to solidify his gains in these areas, as well as push further for those that are not yet complete.
•Make implementation of legislation a prime focus. The implementation of legislation is as important as its passage, but the rules and guidelines that accompany it take time to develop. Two important first-term victories, the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, will continue to require rule making that implements the legislation. Other laws, such as patent reform legislation and the provisions of trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, all require execution. President Obama will need to solidify his first term gains through his appointments as well as administrative instruments such as executive orders.
•Refresh executive branch leadership. After four years, presidential appointees in executive branch and White House positions often suffer burnout. The beginning of a second term is a natural point to bring in people with experiences and skills associated with the second-term agenda. In order to match the administrative emphasis of a second term, a president's team requires appointees with departmental service and knowledge of the president's program.
There is no set pattern a president has to follow in filling out his Cabinet. You can have holdovers from the first term well into the second. President Bill Clinton had four department secretaries who stayed through his entire time in office. President Obama might keep those department secretaries whose experience and management skills fit in with his second term administrative focus. (Presidents Ronald Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush replaced an average of half of their Cabinet members in the period between their re-election and the inauguration. Some of those moves involved switching Cabinet secretaries from one administrative post to another.)
•Front-load policy initiatives. Unlike a first term, a president cannot count on four years working on his policy agenda. Instead, the first two years are the most fruitful for domestic policy and the final two represent a time to focus on foreign policy and a graceful exit. By the end of an administration, government officials and news organizations are focused on presidential candidates for the next election rather than the incumbent.
•Make use of the early months. President Obama was able to make good use of the early months of his first term, and there is no reason to believe he will not be able to do so again. Actions from his early days in office solidified his victory in 2012. His work on the auto bailout, for example, ultimately was important in winning Ohio in 2012. The first act he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, one of a series of actions, and perhaps the most high-profile one, that led to his strong electoral support from women.
The first item of business in this post-election period is negotiating with House and Senate leaders on the fiscal issues demanding immediate attention: decisions on the extension of Bush tax cuts; raising revenue to cover mandated budget cuts referred to as sequestration; dealing with the payroll tax extension, the Alternative Minimum Tax; extension of the debt ceiling.
•Become the president of "explaining stuff." One of the important aspects of the presidency is selling presidential programs. That was an area where President Obama commented he was weak, and one where he can learn from President Clinton. The goal of a presidential speech is not eloquence, it is understanding: how to make sense of all the facts and figures thrown at us from so many different locations. That is where President Clinton excelled. To get to a place where people understood his points, President Clinton eschewed eloquence in favor of making sure his audience understood the points he was making.
Every day when the president is in town there are approximately 100 representatives of news organizations — reporters, photojournalists and television crews — ready to carry presidential announcements and those of his spokespeople to a national audience. His remarks are carried through cable networks. News organizations are a vehicle for him to communicate with the public, and he has several forums he can use. Among the underutilized ones in his first term were press conferences and short question-and-answer sessions where a president takes a question or two on a current issue or unfolding event. President Obama has had only 106 short Q&As sessions, while President Clinton had 595 in the same period and President Bush had 344. These brief sessions give a president a standing opportunity to amplify his positions and reasoning.
In his second term, President Obama can make use of the ability he developed during the campaign to be concise while also covering a broad range of subjects. His Wednesday press conference (his first such full-scale White House session in eight months) demonstrated his ability to move quickly and fairly concisely over multiple topics.
These points demonstrate how a president can make use of the opportunities he has working in his favor. Second terms are different, but there is no need for a second term to be lacking in accomplishments. We simply need to recognize what it is a president can do in the second term and judge his work against what we expect from the chief executive in his final four years.
Martha Kumar is a professor of political science at Towson University. An expert in presidential transitions, she is the author of the book "Managing the President's Message" and a forthcoming book on the 2008 presidential transition, "Mapping the Glide Path to Power." Her email is email@example.com.