By Jules Witcover
7:31 AM EDT, July 22, 2013
Second presidential terms are supposed to give the occupant of the Oval Office a voter-endorsed ticket to pursue a more favorable narrative place in the history books. Barack Obama's second time around, however, is developing more as a rerun of his first term's effort to clean up the inherited mistakes of his predecessor, and a defense of his own major first-term legislation.
As Mr. Obama pursues a positive legacy for his presidency, he is obliged first to continue battling the economic downturn that left the Great Recession on his plate for more than four years. At the same time, he must struggle to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and deal with the aftermath of that war and the one in Iraq, while coping with calls for intervention in Syria.
At home, his signature health-care reform plan remains under fire from Republicans in Congress, who are still driven by a determination to deny him any opportunity to make the plan work. Their open objective from the start, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, was to make Mr. Obama "a one-term president." Having failed at that, they seem bent on making his second term a failure.
Although some Senate Republicans have begun to show a willingness to achieve compromise, as in the recent votes for a bipartisan immigration reform bill, their House brethren remain determinedly obstructionist. And together they continue to vow they will "repeal and replace Obamacare," despite about 40 failed roll calls on the issue.
In all this, the first African American president, who vowed on entering the White House to change the way Washington works, has made little progress in that regard. Essentially, he has been unable to get past the domestic economic and foreign entanglements that met him at the door, and even now he is facing more frustration in getting his enacted health-care plan off the ground.
President Obama's latest decision, to give employers of a year's reprieve from the law's mandate to provide insurance coverage in the workplace, has been seized by Republican critics as an admission that his whole plan is unworkable. Mr. Obama is now obliged to try selling its virtues all over again, having failed to do a very persuasive job in his first term.
Presidents understandably have always been interested in leaving a positive legacy behind, but it wasn't always under time restraints. Although every president until FDR honored the two-term tradition set by George Washington, it wasn't codified until the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951. Without it, the first subsequent two-termer, Dwight Eisenhower, almost certainly would have been a favorite for a third term had he been able and had he decided to seek it.
Mr. Obama, well into his fifth year in the Oval Office, is increasingly the target of Democratic liberals charging him with being too conciliatory toward the opposition party and too timid in advancing progressive goals they hoped he would openly champion. The restlessness extends to black Americans who complain that Mr. Obama is not aggressive enough in pursuing their interests.
This Democratic president has just been given a modest helping hand from his party's leader in the Senate, the dogged if unspectacular Harry Reid. By threatening to bring about simple majority rule there to curb GOP obstructionist filibusters, Senator Reid jammed through key Obama executive-branch appointments in a show of political muscle that other Democrats feel has been lacking from the Oval Office.
Although Mr. Obama will not directly face the voters again, next year's congressional elections can in a sense be a final referendum on his presidency. They will determine whether he will be given continued Democratic control of the Senate and an end to the GOP majority in the House that has been at the root of his legislative woes from the start.
Such an outcome will give this president, elected amid such high hopes among his faithful, two final years to achieve his 2008 promise of a turnaround in effective governing that put him behind the desk where Harry Truman famously said the buck stops. Until then, it will be more bucking the headwind of Republican obstruction that has been his constant nemesis to date.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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