Since the beginning of the modern presidency under Franklin Roosevelt, every chief executive elected to a second term has suffered disaster during that term. FDR provoked a major political crisis when he tried to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, after which he guided the economy into a severe recession, undoing some of the economic gains of his first four years in office. Truman had Korea. Eisenhower faced Sputnik and the recession of 1958–59 (the worst in 20 years), followed by the U-2 incident and the collapse of a planned summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Lyndon Johnson suffered through Vietnam and widespread race riots. Nixon became embroiled in Watergate, was impeached and resigned. Reagan nearly lost office in the Iran-Contra scandal. Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” eventually led to his impeachment, though he was acquitted by the Senate. George W. Bush had Iraq, Katrina, and the financial meltdown of 2008. Now it’s Barack Obama’s turn.
Obama roundly defeated Mitt Romney to win reelection in 2012. Yet today, not even six months into his second term, he is politically wounded, perhaps mortally so. After deciding to push gun control in the wake of the Newtown massacre, he failed to secure congressional passage of even his minimum program for universal background checks. Immigration reform, expected to be the signature domestic achievement of his second term, is hanging fire in the Senate, and faces questionable prospects in the House. The implementation of Obamacare is fraught with problems (on this see David Brooks’ column “Health Chaos Ahead,” in the April 25 New York Times). Foreign policy, normally a presidential strength when the nation is not actually at war, seems increasingly in disarray. Relations with Russia are fraying. No progress has been made on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The possibility of US intervention in Syria’s complex civil war seems to be increasing, with planning underway for an air campaign in support of the Syrian rebels, and a forward headquarters of the US Central Command already on the ground in Jordan. Add to these problems the troika of scandals currently roiling Washington (Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department’s secret spying on the Associated Press), and a picture of an administration nearing collapse begins to form.
Let’s examine briefly the three scandals just mentioned. The 9/11/12 attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, came about as a result of mistakes made by the Obama administration and the Republicans in Congress (who in 2011 turned down an administration request to provide more funds for embassy security). The administration made the scandal all its own by putting out misleading talking points that claimed the attack was not terror-related. It clearly did so for political purposes, seeking to preserve Obama’s reputation as a successful fighter of terrorism during the election campaign. The web of lies about Benghazi woven by the administration since last September will not bring it down, but the political damage is likely to be significant and lasting.
Today, not even six months into his second term, President Obama is politically wounded, perhaps mortally so.
The IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status probably won’t destroy the Obama presidency either, but it could. We don’t yet know just how high up the rot goes. If it can be shown that people in the White House encouraged the IRS campaign (or simply knew about it and did nothing), then the scandal rises to Nixonian levels. The betting here is that Obama and his people aren’t that stupid, but we’ll see. Don’t hold your breath for impeachment, but do expect a long drawn-out series of investigations that will bog down the administration for much of 2013.
The AP spying scandal is merely a continuation of the quasi-authoritarianism instituted by federal authorities after the original 9/11. One of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon was based in part on his use of wiretapping without a court order. Today the Department of Justice conducts warrantless wiretaps as a matter of course, thanks to the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2012, which Obama signed into law after his reelection. This particular scandal has legs because journalists were the target. But it’s really no more than business as usual in our Orwellian Republic. The administration may take some hits, but the damage will not be mortal.
Nothing that has happened so far in Obama’s second term rises to the level of Watergate. Yet, taken together, the mistakes and lies of the past eight months have this administration reeling. It truly is in danger of imploding — which for many on the Right would be good news. A crippled presidency, however, tends to breed uncertainty and malaise, with bad consequences for the economy. And there is the further danger that a crippled president might seek to redeem himself in foreign lands — Syria, for example, or Iran.
The second term woes of Obama’s predecessors were largely the result of hubris (or, in Ronald Reagan’s case, incipient senility). Obama on the other hand suffers principally from aloofness. He is under the impression that elections are all that matter. But we do not live in a plebiscitary democracy. Successful governing involves schmoozing with people you may secretly detest. It involves coming down from your pedestal and actually engaging other human beings who also have supporters and power. Obama has never wanted to do this. He prefers to stand alone, believing that the adoration of his supporters guarantees success. As a result he has few real resources to draw upon in times of trouble. And he is in trouble now. No single problem (the IRS scandal possibly excepted) can bring him down, but he faces the prospect of a slow political death from a thousand cuts. While he undoubtedly will seek to place blame for his troubles on those who have always opposed him, his foremost enemy dwells in the mirror.