The Misery of Obama's Second Term

The president is now at odds with Congress and the public.


Everyone elected president comes into office modeling himself on some predecessor: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan. But those who win re-election eventually end up wondering whether they should have emulated James K. Polk instead. Why? Because he promised to serve only one term, and he stuck to it.

Barack Obama is probably reaching that stage about now. Ten months after concluding a victorious campaign, he finds himself with a public approval rating of 44 percent. That's down 10 points since December—and the same as that of George W. Bush at this point in his presidency.

Obama's threat to attack Syria has put him at odds with Congress and the public. By last weekend, The Washington Post reported that "a majority of House members are now on the record as either against or leaning against authorizing President Obama to use military force."

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on the eve of his Tuesday TV address found that only 28 percent of Americans approved of his handling of the matter. Public support for the proposed attack, says Gallup, is lower than for any U.S. war in the past two decades.

The numbers reflect a couple of facts that are largely beyond his control. The first is that after 12 years of nonstop fighting in distant lands, Americans are sick of war. The second is that after nearly five years of watching him in the White House, many are also tired of Obama.

This is a common consequence of protracted exposure. Most TV series don't last more than five years—and TV series don't air seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. There have been several new iPhone models since Obama was first elected. If you bought a suit or a dress five years ago, it's no longer the epitome of fashion.

Facing the aftermath of re-election is a challenge for the people in the administration, as well as the people they serve. Top aides burn out or cash in, leaving the White House to find replacements, who may not enjoy the same trust or access. Presidents run out of ideas. If they have any left over, they're even less likely to be able to get them through the second time around.

Scandals also have a tendency to erupt in the second term, and the IRS targeting of tea party groups arrived this year right on schedule. All this comes before the midterm congressional elections, which typically bring losses to the party in the White House. Republicans are expected to enlarge their House majority and could capture the Senate.

Obama's honeymoon with Democratic liberals is a fading memory. Some are disillusioned by the National Security Agency surveillance, some oppose an attack in Syria, and most of them gag at the thought of Larry Summers taking over the Federal Reserve.

While most presidents try to add new achievements in their second terms, Obama is still wrangling with Congress over the central one of his first term. The House has voted some 40 times to undo Obamacare, and some members want to force a government shutdown if necessary to attain that goal.

So the president may get to relive the exquisite torture of battling Congress over the debt ceiling. Republicans show no inclination to pass the immigration reform he champions. The economy has been lousy for his entire presidency and shows every indication of staying that way.

Foreign affairs are no ray of sunshine. Vladimir Putin may have spared Obama a war in Syria, but Obama will have to take care to avoid being scammed in the deal on Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons. He has to extricate the U.S. military from Afghanistan without unleashing chaos.

North Korea reportedly has restarted a nuclear reactor to make fuel for additional nuclear weapons. Sometime in the next three years, Obama may have to decide whether to carry out a massive strike to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb. It's enough to make a guy wish he were free to focus on his presidential library.

At the end of the brilliant 1970 biographical film "Patton," Gen. George Patton recalls that when a Roman conqueror returned home to bask in adulation, a slave rode along in his chariot, whispering, "All glory is fleeting." Obama needs no one to remind him. By now, he probably says it in his sleep.