In modern American history, most second-term presidents have been a disaster, often after a successful first term. Truman’s first term rebuilt post-war America; his second was bogged down in Korea. Eisenhower’s first term retreated from Korea; his second was marked by scandal, after Chief of Staff Sherman Adams fell. Nixon first opened up to China and withdrew from Vietnam. His second term ended with Watergate. Reagan emancipated America from its 1970s lethargy, but Iran-Contra overshadowed his second-term victory in the Cold War. Clinton was initially radical and effective on health, wealth and welfare. Then he got impeached.
This potted history is a pretty good argument for abolishing the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to two terms. Its saps presidents of authority and creates perverse incentives. Except that, as he has a habit of doing, the current occupant of the Oval Office is turning history on its head, and showing a second term can mean a second wind.
Barack Obama has had an exceptionally good few weeks. Attempts to overthrow his signature healthcare reform have been defeated. He’s got a big trade deal with the Asia-Pacific region. Relations with Cuba are being normalised for the first time in decades. This week, a fragile but truly historic deal with Iran was signed. The Federal Reserve spoke warmly about America’s economic recovery. And then, as a black man in a country where the incarceration rate for black men is almost beyond belief, he became the first US president to visit a federal prison.
It’s long past time we put Obama in the second rank of American presidents, together with FDR, and just below Abraham Lincoln, that other lawyer and master rhetorician on whom Obama has modelled himself. He inherited an economy losing 750,000 jobs a month and has restored it to consistent growth. During his time, states have begun to decriminalise cannabis, being gay in the military is no longer taboo, and gay marriage is spreading. America is more liberal. It is killing fewer foreigners and building new alliances.
The late Mario Cuomo said you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Obama certainly did the former, and these victories show he’s done the latter too. But this remarkable leader, a best-selling author before he was President, has added poetry to his role: witness his rendering of “Amazing Grace” in a recent eulogy.
He’s made errors (Syria, drones) and could have done more (green energy). But look around the world and the centre-left is in disarray, with conservatives triumphant. Obama reminds liberals everywhere that they can win, if only they grow up and do what’s necessary to obtain – and retain – power.