AFTER weeks of partisan bickering, a limited deal that allows the US to climb back up the "fiscal cliff" has been belatedly approved by Congress.
The legislative agreement rolls back much of the US’s tax increases and delays cutbacks to US government agencies and departments such as the Pentagon, scheduled from this week. It is a partial victory for President Barack Obama, but the tortuous nature of the negotiations has already served an early warning to him — political polarisation and gridlock in Washington look set to intensify during his second term.
Obama will still achieve some further domestic policy success in the next four years, but the chances of securing a series of major legislative victories are not strong. Republicans, who were so at odds with Obama’s first-term agenda, maintain their firm grip on the House of Representatives and hold a sizable minority in the Senate.
The fact that Obama’s second term will probably not be a highly productive one in domestic policy is not unusual for re-elected incumbents. During their first four years in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting several core priorities (in Obama’s case, including healthcare reform, and the 2009 fiscal stimulus bill), while key items that fail to secure a critical mass of support are rarely resurrected.
There are several key reasons presidents find it difficult to secure legislative approval for significant new measures in second terms. First, the party that controls the White House often holds a weaker position in Congress in second presidential terms. Thus, Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses in which both the House and the Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents.
The productiveness of second terms can also be stymied by the turnover of senior personnel. It is not always easy to recruit figures of the same status and calibre as those who leave, and new staff can take considerable time to hit the ground running.
Third, re-elected administrations have often been hit with scandals (although the events that trigger the scandals can happen during first terms) — such as Watergate, the Iran-Contra deal and the Lewinsky scandal.
It remains to be seen if any major scandals will affect the Obama administration. However, some Republicans in Congress are already pressuring Obama on what they perceive as his team’s "cover-up" of events surrounding the killing of four US citizens in Libya, including the US ambassador, in September. Even if Obama and his administration escape significant scandal, he will not be able to avoid the "lame duck" factor. That is, as presidents cannot seek more than two terms, political focus will inevitably refocus beyond them, particularly after the 2014 congressional elections, when the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into gear.
This overall domestic policy context means Obama, like other second-term presidents in the postwar era, is likely to increasingly turn his focus towards foreign policy. This is especially likely if the US economic recovery builds up pace in coming months.
Foreign policy could become an especially strong point of focus for Obama after the Israeli election on January 22, if Benjamin Netanyahu is re-elected prime minister and ups the ante with Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme. A missile strike by Tel Aviv, with or without the support of the US, is a real possibility. This issue has potential to pose major headaches for Obama, and will require skilled statesmanship, especially given his strained relationship with Netanyahu.
The probable emphasis by Obama on foreign policy will be reinforced by a desire to establish a significant legacy. Previous re-elected presidents have often seen international initiatives as key to the legacy they wish to build, including Clinton, who tried to secure a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. Almost 20 years later, with a significant breakthrough between the Israelis and Palestinians still log-jammed, other areas of the world are potentially more important to any Obama legacy.
In particular, following the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and the intended draw-down of troops in Afghanistan, Obama is continuing his post-9/11 reorientation of policy towards Asia-Pacific.
This was symbolised, within days of his re-election, by his trip to Burma, Cambodia and Thailand.
Key threats on the horizon to securing this redirection of policy include the possibility of further terrorist attacks on the US by al-Qaeda, and a major upsurge of tension in the Middle East, perhaps emanating from Israeli-Iranian conflict, or the implosion of Syria. However, should any of these scenarios arise, it will only reinforce Obama’s broader focus on foreign policy in the coming years.
• Hammond is an associate partner at ReputationInc and a former adviser to the UK government.
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