Obama’s Last Gasp at a Legacy

As his potency dwindles, the president should ease up on pot prohibition

All hope and audacity aside, the math of second-term presidential power is pitiless.

After winning re-election by 3.5 million votes in 2004, George W. Bush declared that “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” Within months, the 43rd president’s signature post-election initiative, creating private accounts for Social Security, was declared dead on arrival by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. In the last Bush midterm election of 2006, energized Democrats re-took control of Congress. So much for second-term capital.

Bill Clinton was impeached halfway through his second term. Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. Ronald Reagan’s Republicans lost control of the Senate in 1986, and the Gipper spent the rest of his presidency backpedaling on a botched arms-for-hostages swap. 

The five second-term presidents prior to Reagan —Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson—had it even worse during their midterms, averaging losses of 39 House and seven Senate seats. If President Barack Obama met the same fate in 2014, the Senate would turn Republican and the House would feature its largest GOP majority since 1929. 

Though that outcome may seem unlikely now, it is a statistical near-certainty that the pendulum of two-party politics swings decisively away from presidents in years five through eight of their tenure. Americans tire of the bully at the pulpit, same-party congressmen lose their fear of breaking ranks, and the media turns its attention to the next presidential contest.

So it should come as no surprise that, even after winning the popular vote by 5 million and talking up his “mandate,” Obama has been so rudely introduced to his own impotence. The first big blow was the March 1 sequester spending trim, carried out over his howls of protests and predictions of catastrophe. As possibilities for compromise with Republicans floated away, so, too, did dim hopes of a “grand bargain” on long-term entitlement spending. 

Thus, the president who came into office in January 2009 vowing that the “hard decisions” on long-term entitlement promises would be “made under my watch, not someone else’s,” because “we are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick [the can] any further,” will instead hand off a ticking entitlement bomb to his successor. Not a happy legacy, that.

Obama also spent the first few months of his second-term political capital on a series of gun control measures that became less popular the more he stumped for them. After even a comparatively mild and popular background check expansion failed in the Senate, the chief executive looked more petulant than presidential, calling it “a pretty shameful day for Washington,” and claiming, falsely, that “there were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn’t do this.” (For several coherent arguments on precisely that topic, consult in particular Senior Editor Jacob Sullum’s work at reason.com.)

At a press conference not long after the gun defeat, Obama was asked by ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl, “Do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?” The president looked down, laughed awkwardly, and said, “If you put it that way, Jonathan, maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly!” 

It doesn’t have to be this painful. Second-term presidents have basically two options: Look creatively for domestic reforms that appeal to the opposition party, or use the executive branch’s considerable discretion to make significant directional changes in U.S. policy. 

Since Obama lacks Bill Clinton’s ideological slipperiness, at a time that Democrats have entrenched themselves considerably to the left of Clinton on economic issues and Republicans have hardened in opposition, the reaching-out strategy is probably a non-starter. The last real possible exception to that rule is comprehensive immigration reform, where electorally motivated Republicans were still negotiating with Senate Democrats at press time, while Obama stayed away from the fray. While progress on a reform bill has gone further than I expected, it still faces an uphill climb, and at any rate marks the last big bipartisan legislative package on the horizon.

That leaves executive action, a phrase that normally gives libertarians the willies. Second-term presidents can always bomb other countries (like Clinton in Kosovo), pardon commute the sentences of* their political allies (like Bush with Lewis “Scooter” Libby), and lard the Federal Register with a bunch of last-minute major regulations (like every recent president).

But there are decontrols and symbolic actions available as well, and here Obama can learn from his own recent positive experience. In May 2012, Vice President Joe Biden blurted out that he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage. A few days after that generally well-received trial balloon, the president came out as well, saying “at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Even though Obama had said “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages” way back in 1996, he did not get beaten up for re-arriving so late to the party. A Democratic base that has long been ahead of its political representatives on the issue simply applauded the overdue change, and noted how the presidential blessing moved public opinion even faster toward acceptance. By the time the 2012 election rolled around, Democrats could use this change of heart to bolster their case that Republicans stood only for the privileged sectors of society.

Cynics might note that it took Obama less than nine months to go from reluctantly embracing what his base clearly wanted to thundering in his second inaugural address that “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” But those of us who favor government non-discrimination in marriage recognition can take a more heartening and relevant lesson: Change that looks so frighteningly novel to timid politicians can actually be absorbed very quickly by voters, who then stand ready to reward the first movers.

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  • Brandon||

    I didn't know giggling like an idiot could be considered a "Legacy."

  • Rich||

    "Uhhh ...."

  • Mike Parent||

    I see you ignored the facts that legalization would save many tens of billions of dollars and the caging of hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans annually, for using a substance safer than what the govt. currently allows.

  • Sevo||

    "I see you ignored the facts that legalization would save many tens of billions of dollars and the caging of hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans annually, for using a substance safer than what the govt. currently allows."

    I doubt any of the folks who post here ignore either of those facts.

  • some guy||

    Just pot? Is legalizing something that everyone already uses anyway really the stuff of a "legacy"? I guess in Washington it is. Yet another commentary on our current sad state of affairs.

  • John Galt||

    Drugs are a lot like liberty in general. If one only supports legalization of only the drugs they consider to be less harmful then it's hardly a belief in liberty that motivates them. It's like freedom of speech, protections don't need to be in place for popular speech. It's the unpopular speech that must be protected.

    This is why "pot" legalization leaves me completely unimpressed. From what I've witnessed, marijuana users are often very quick to jump on the prohibition bandwagon when it comes to alcohol or other drugs.

    The whole point is the government has no business telling anyone what they should, or shouldn't be, putting in their bodies. And that is the issue.

  • Goldwyn Smith||

    Obamacare? Libya? Gay Marriage?
    And the media and academia will make up a legacy for him anyway. Worked for Wilson, Truman, JFK and LBJ

  • John Galt||

    History is actually written by politically motivated losers.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Bill Clinton was impeached halfway through his second term.

    Not to mention the Camp David summit, which Clinton had banked on to cement his legacy, ended in failure.

  • John Galt||

    The I did not have sexual relations with that woman! (...my cigar did) seems like one helluva legacy.

  • Dibbler||

    Natures's humidor

  • gaoxiaen||

    I didn't have sex with her. She had sex with me. I was just an innocent bystander (while she was kneeling).

  • The Late P Brooks||

    At this point, resignation in disgrace is the only fitting legacy for that chump. Hounding the dumb bastard from office should be the full time job of every American with half a brain.

  • fish||

    Hounding the dumb bastard from office should be the full time job of every American with half a brain.

    Bad news dude...that demographic really is the 1%.

  • John Galt||

    It's only "the 1%" because the 99% possess brains nowhere near as large as a half a brain.

  • PRX||

    Bush didn't pardon Scooter Libby.

  • Matt Welch||

    Corrected, thanks.

  • John Galt||

    While it was fully assumed by a great many that he would pardon Libby, in the end Bush merely commuted down the majority of the time to be spent in prison portion of his sentence.

    What would be great, today, would be if the shoe would be made to fit the same way on the opposite foot, and some of those close to Obama had to take some serious falls for his administration's wrong doings.

  • Goldwyn Smith||

    Gay Marriage strengthened the gov while pot legalization won't so of course he won't legalize it.

  • Jerry on the boat||

    Next thing you know people will want to drive without seat belts.

  • John Galt||

    Oh, the humanity!

  • John Galt||

    Does this mean we're no longer required to pray to Obama as our Heavenly Father?

  • Acosmist||

    To his discredit, Bush did not pardon Libby of that fake charge.

  • John Galt||

    And, to basically anyone with a speck of common sense, the charges were obviously fake. Apparently, G.W. is the kind of man who will happily let another take the bullet, right or wrong, if it'll save his own skin.

  • WomSom||

    Sometimes man you jsut gotta smack dat ass!

    www.AnonStuff.tk

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Those bought-and-paid-for politicians with their beautiful bean footage, eh, anonbot?

  • Sevo||

    +1 can of baked beans.

  • juris imprudent||

    That was the Chad Johnson thread.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "The president also has the mostly neglected power to pardon convicts and commute sentences, which would be particularly apropos after he signed into law a reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine."

    Where's the political gain from executive clemency? You can't pass the buck because it's a unilateral decision with your signature on it, so if the person you release from prison today commits a(nother) crime in the next couple years, you won't be able to blame Republicans or bad advisors or "unforseen" economic developments.

    No, the best thing is to pardon nobody at all - you won't face 30-second ads for all the people you *didn't* pardon, after all. And you can blame the Republicans if all else fails.

  • Goldwyn Smith||

    Why would Obama want to pardon anyone?

  • Sevo||

    "Why would Obama want to pardon anyone?"
    There might be one vote in a pardon, maybe 4 or 5 as friends weigh in.
    But compared to winging it to CA and hanging around with high-buck tech money? Phooey on it.
    Oh, and the techies provide the data to the NSA!

  • VG Zaytsev||

    He'll pardon himself.

  • CE||

    Obama already has his legacy: unprecedented levels of debt and corruption. The next president will probably break his debt record, but the scandals will take some real effort to match.

  • ||

    That picture of Obama annoys me.

  • Mike Parent||

    Name another change in policy that could Save Tens of Billions Immediately and not cause harm?

  • Sevo||

    "Name another change in policy that could Save Tens of Billions Immediately and not cause harm?"

    Father, this is the choir you're preaching to!

  • AlgerHiss||

    I always thought Clinton to be one of the most panzy-assed, whimpy, simpy poofs ever to be in the White House.

    But this current little twerp makes Clinton look like Charles Atlas.

  • OBD2 TOOL||

    Even though Obama had said “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages” way back in 1996, he did not get beaten up for re-arriving so late to the party. A Democratic base that has long been ahead of its political representatives on the issue simply applauded the overdue change, and noted how the presidential blessing moved public opinion even faster toward acceptance. By the time the 2012 election rolled around, Democrats could use this change of heart to bolster their case that Republicans stood only for the privileged sectors of society.

  • Paul Pot||

    History will remember President Obama as the elephant in the room.

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