Looking Ahead to Governing

Looking Ahead to Governing

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.


Given that the 2012 campaign is crawling along, it is not hard to understand that those political writers and columnists who seek to examine elections as more than jabbing and counter-punching, are indeed frustrated by the failure of any of the candidates to truly address the very real and serious decisions which will face the President beginning in November. These include expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the debt ceiling extension, and the kick-in of the spending cuts. So it was not surprising that David Brooks—probably one of the most thoughtful writers among today’s commentariat—tried to consider what would be the nature of the leadership that might be expected by a re-elected President Obama.  (It should be understood that President Obama—win or lose—will face these issues immediately, but in all probability the lame duck Congress will defer their consideration until early in 2013.)

What Brooks really was asking was whether the Obama second term leadership—when he will be governing for his place in history and not jockeying for re-election—will be stronger and more assertive than Brooks suggested he was in his first term.  Given the issues mentioned above plus Iran, Afghanistan withdrawal, energy, immigration, European debt, etc., it is a daunting list for any President.

The discussion which Brooks did not address with respect to the entire leadership question was                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      that at least part of this problem is a consequence of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution (passed in pique in 1946 by a Republican Congress that had been frustrated by FDR’s four terms) which limited Presidents two terms. Even for a President less cautious and lawyerly than Obama, the absence of political leverage for a lame-duck President is huge. Given the likelihood that Obama will face the continuation of an ugly Republican Party in Congress, even a dramatically more aggressive Obama will face extraordinary odds challenging his ability to reach a consensus on any of the major domestic issues.

What Obama’s supporters believe is that without the political burden of having to run again, the President will demonstrate a leadership ability which he has been reticent to assert during his first term. What his detractors fear is that Obama, should he suddenly decide that he indeed wants to lead, will be polarizing, ideological, and divisive. The third view, which is probably the most realistic, is that his personal make-up is such that he will not change very much. His governing style in his first term will be more or less that of a second term. In truth, few Presidents have ever made a dramatic change in their decision-making modus operandi from one term to the next.

It is not clear from this, however, whether this ought to be a call for the repeal of the 22nd Amendment or not; something which President Ronald Reagan—a Republican–actually supported.

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