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LEWISBURG, Pa. — With President Barack Obama's second term officially underway, Associate Professor of Political Science Scott Meinke discusses Washington's political environment, and what we can expect from the administration over the next four years.
Question: What does history tell us about the success presidents have in their second term versus their first?
Answer: Second-term presidents generally don't enjoy the same window for major policy change that first-term presidents have, and they are unlikely to gain new political support in Washington as the second term goes on. Modern second-term presidents such as Reagan and Clinton have had just a few new major legislative initiatives and have used the second term to defend and extend the important agenda items that they began in their first term. Modern second-termers have also tried, with mixed results, to add foreign policy achievements to their legacy, and we may see Obama do some of the same.
Second-term presidents also are at a high risk of running into major problems as they try to meet expectations in the face of waning political power. All of the re-elected presidents of the last half-century have experienced scandal and/or dramatic policy failures in their second terms, and these scandals have further depleted the presidents' support in the public and in Congress. As Obama navigates the difficult terrain of his second term, a key challenge for him is to avoid the excesses and insularity that, when combined with strong partisan opposition, lead to political crises.
Q: How will the environment in Congress affect President Obama's second term?
A: The congressional environment for the next two years is likely to be a frustrating one for both sides, although there is still reason to expect that Washington can make some policy advances in Obama's second term. The party split between the two chambers makes legislating more complicated, but the greatest source of difficulty is the very high levels of polarization between the two parties in each chamber. Polarization was at 100-year highs in the last Congress, and this trend will only continue in the new Congress. To make matters more complicated, the Republican conference in the House seems newly divided internally, and these divisions are making efforts at lawmaking more unpredictable. But there remains room for action on some issues, particularly if party leaders in the House and Senate continue to see incentives for allowing votes on legislation with bipartisan support as they have in recent weeks.
Q: How does the current relationship between Congress and the White House compare to previous years?
A: The tensions between the two branches are certainly at a very high level, historically speaking, but we should recognize that this tension is about the real and stark divisions between the parties. I think there is a temptation to envision a president who could, by the force of his or her personal skill, create compromise and collaboration with Congress just by building personal relationships or by persuading the public to bring Congress to the president's side. Political scientists are generally skeptical that presidents can shape the presidential/congressional relationship that way, particularly when the ideological and partisan divisions in Congress are so strong.
So we should not expect President Obama to bring much change to the divided environment, but at the same time, the relationship between this president and this Congress is not markedly different from other recent divided government situations, including the late 1990s under President Clinton.
Q: What big initiatives do you expect Obama to try to tackle during his second term?
A: Along with the new push for gun control legislation, I expect that President Obama will use his agenda-setting role to push for action on immigration. Both issues bring the potential for some support from a subset of congressional Republicans, although the chances for major legislative policy change are probably better on immigration than on gun control. The budget and deficit reduction will be another important set of issue — there is still some chance for a big, long-term agreement between the parties on taxes and spending, but I think it's more likely that we will see recurring battles over short-term spending legislation.
Health care will also remain important. We have largely moved past the two-year conflict over the law itself and its legitimacy; President Obama's re-election means that he will use the second term to oversee the law's implementation. Much of the action will be in the executive branch and in the states rather than in Congress, but it will be very important to the president to see that the new and complex policy is well established by the time he leaves office in 2017.
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