When President Obama explains his vision for a second term, he usually prefers staring into the rearview mirror.
His speeches stress the Republican threats to gut his legacy, rather than bold declarations of what can be achieved with four more years in the White House. He warns audiences that Mitt Romney would—as promised—undo achievements such as Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. "We're here because everything we fought for in 2008 is on the line in 2012," Obama said last week at a San Francisco campaign event. "The last thing we can afford right now is four years of the very same policies that led us into the mess in the first place. We've spent four years cleaning it up. We don't want another mess. We can't allow that to happen. I won't allow it to happen. And that's why I’m running for a second term for President of the United States of America."
Going into the second of three presidential debates Tuesday, Obama faces pressure to outline a broader vision for his administration. His abysmal showing at the initial Oct. 3 debate in Denver featured little discussion about just how he would generate more growth than the feeble economy has managed thus far. Romney capitalized on the president’s tentative answers, causing his previously flailing campaign to surge in the polls.
But there are reasons for Obama to avoid the lofty expectations that first led him to the Oval Office. He has chosen to forgo inspirational stump speeches for an equally powerful motivator: fear. It’s a strategic bet—one true to the nature of second terms—that voters would rather stay the course in a sluggish recovery than hear a politician wax about yet another grandiose agenda.
Second terms often have the unglamorous task of implementing the laws passed during the preceding four years—with Obama’s health coverage mandates beginning in 2014 and enforcing some of the new restrictions on Wall Street banks such as the Volcker Rule a year away.
“We are never told by presidents running for re-election that second terms are almost always less productive than first terms,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution who advised four presidential administrations. “You have a good deal of leftover business that you conduct. And how well you do that depends in part on whether you have a Congress controlled by your party.”
Republicans are set to hold onto their majority in the House of Representatives, while the composition of the Senate—where the Democrats are now in charge—will be decided by the Nov. 6 election. Because the configuration of Congress is unlikely to change, Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer said it’s natural for Republicans to focus on the earlier accomplishments.
“If you create a bunch of programs, you have to take the time to make sure they work,” Zelizer told The Fiscal Times. “If they get dismantled, you have zero legacies.”
On the campaign trail, Obama treats the idea of another four years as performing more of the janitorial work needed after George W. Bush’s tenure. His remarks almost always include the disclaimer—to justify the 7.8 percent unemployment rate and four straight years of $1 trillion-plus deficits—that he inherited the worst crisis since the Great Depression.
And Bush would inevitably haunt Obama in a second term. One of the key disputes in the fiscal cliff next year that could land the country back into recession is whether to continue the tax cuts originally enacted by the 43rd president. Republicans would preserve the lower rates for all Americans, while Obama would only extend them for families earning less than $250,000.
By contrast, Romney courts voters with policies that—despite the suspect math—promise to fix everything. He pledges to somehow lower tax rates, increase military expenditures, hash out unknown spending cuts with Congress, and whittle the deficit into a surplus while more than doubling gross domestic product growth to 4 percent a year.
Obama adviser David Axelrod recently defended the choice to have the president offer a less ambitious vision.
“His vision, his values are more consistent with those of people across the country who understand that if we're going to rebuild this economy,” Axelrod told NPR last week, “it starts with a strong, thriving middle class, that we can't simply cut our way to prosperity, that tax cuts for the wealthy and rolling back the rules on Wall Street isn't a formula for a better future. It's a formula that takes us right back to the mess we were in.”
But if recent history is any guide, it’s worth noting that second terms also end in disasters that overshadow any campaign rhetoric.
“Usually, there is scandal,” said Doug Wead, a presidential historian who served in George H.W. Bush’s administration and advised Ron Paul’s Campaign.
After the Wall Street panic, the Iraq and Afghan wars, and Hurricane Katrina, George W. Bush ended his presidency in notoriety. Clinton was impeached for his sexual shenanigans. Reagan became engulfed by the Iran-Contra arms deal. And in the fallout of the Watergate burglary, Nixon resigned.
Presidents succumb to the Icarus syndrome, inevitably letting their egos drift too closely to the sun. Having vision is also about being on the look-out potential catastrophes. And if there’s one critical take away from Obama’s performance in the first debate, it’s the high price exacted by presidential hubris.
“They get cocky,” Wead said. “It’s why Obama came to the debate unprepared.”