Is Barack Obama just swinging out his reign?

Out of America: Second presidential terms are rarely productive, but there may be a way to put an end to this wasteful lame-duckery

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Who in their right mind would want to be president of the United States? Yes, you are leader of the most powerful country on Earth, but America's system of constitutional checks and balances means that where domestic policy is concerned, you don't have the clout of a French president, let alone a British prime minister with a guaranteed majority in parliament.

Your hands are freer in foreign policy, but not to the point of ignoring public opinion. And when foreign crises erupt, the world expects you to solve them, even when today's multiple conflicts are manifestly beyond the ability of one global policeman, however enthusiastic, to resolve. The US presidency, for which there is no prior training, is the world's toughest job. That might be a cliché, but like most clichés, it's true. For proof, consider the past few months of Barack Obama's sojourn in the White House.

He's been the President for five years, but to judge by his appearance it might have been 20 – and recent events will only accelerate the ageing process. One moment it's Syria, then Ukraine, then Gaza, then Iraq. And as he juggles his responses to these challenges, domestic events intrude, such as last week's disorders in Missouri which were the legacy of segregation and racial discrimination, and so of special import for a black president.

He takes a needed holiday at the traditional Democratic island retreat of Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, only to be lambasted for playing golf and going to the beach, while Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza burn.

And don't rely on former close associates for comfort, as Hillary Clinton proved when she slid the stiletto into Obama's back last week – banishing in the process any remaining doubt that she intends to run in 2016. "Don't do stupid stuff," was no way for a great country to run its foreign policy, his erstwhile secretary of state told The Atlantic magazine, echoing a line from a recent speech by her former boss outlining a less ambitious approach to world affairs. And this from someone who voted for the Iraq invasion of 2003, arguably the stupidest foreign policy decision in all US history.

 

As Obama's foreign problem mounts, his domestic agenda has ground to a complete halt. Immigration reform and climate change were the big goals, but there's scant chance of getting anything though a bitterly divided and partisan Congress that can barely agree on the time of day.

Looked at in another way however, Obama's travails are par for the course, a classic case of the second-term blues. It happens too often to be coincidence: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W Bush all suffered from it. Scandals were the problem for the first three – Watergate, Iran-Contra and Monica Lewinsky – while Bush's nemeses were a war gone sour and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, America's greatest natural disaster of recent times. For all four, their achievements came almost entirely in their first term.

And so it is with Obama. History's judgement will surely be shaped by what he accomplished in his first years in the White House, by healthcare reform, the economic stimulus package that prevented a recession becoming a depression, and by the regulations to discipline Wall Street and prevent a future banking collapse.

But might there be a way to get rid of the second-term curse. What if a president was limited to a single six-year term? The idea isn't new. It was seriously mooted several years ago by Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia (founded incidentally by Thomas Jefferson, the country's third president, whose own second term was something of a mess). But last week it received a new lease on life from someone who's observed the process up close: Larry Summers, treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, and until recently a top White House adviser to Obama.

The reasons for the "curse" are well known. There's the energy spent on securing re-election, and the adrenalin that drains away afterwards, amid the relief that you'll never have to face the voters again. Typically too the best people, your initial first choices, leave the administration after a first term, either through burn-out, or for a more lucrative job in the private sector.

Finally, the very fact that your ultimate departure date is known reduces your clout: who's afraid of a president who in a couple of years will be gone? All of which applies now to a Barack Obama displaying every symptom of lame-duckery, and explains the prevailing sense that he is merely serving out time – in American sports parlance, running down the clock.

Obama is not without blame for his predicament. His manner betrays a premature tiredness with the political fray. His aloofness, his visible contempt for Congress, do not help: like it or not, presidents must work with lawmakers to get things done. That said, it is doubtful if even such political operators as Clinton or LBJ could gain much traction with today's take-no-prisoners Republicans on Capitol Hill.

There are, moreover, substantial objections against the six-year single term. Who can say it wouldn't guarantee lame-duck status from the outset – and why give six years to an incompetent president, when voters now can kick one out after only four? But the gains are at least as large. No more second-term blues, no need to drop everything and spend months in what the first president Bush, who loathed elections, used to call "campaign mode". And who knows, might not a president freed of the need to pander to constituencies vital for his re-election, actually govern better?

A six-year term won't come to pass of course: amending the constitution, rightly, is extremely difficult, requiring two-thirds majorities in both houses and ratification by three-quarters or 38, of the 50 states. But in this American summer of discontent, and disillusion with the entire political process, why not a little day-dreaming?

READ MORE:
Iraq crisis: A spineless lack of leadership, an abject lack of strategy
Obama and Cameron’s response to the nightmare of Iraq is an incoherent mess  

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