Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney is a landmark moment in U.S. politics. He’s just the second Democratic president to win a second full term since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, doing so despite a very challenging economic headwind of sluggish growth and comparatively high unemployment in the United States.
While many Democrats are elated by Mr. Obama’s success, prospects for him securing major new domestic policy success are not very high. His narrower margin of victory than in 2008 gives him a weaker electoral mandate. Moreover, Republicans, who were so at odds with the President’s first-term agenda, have maintained their firm grip in the House of Representatives.
So the Washington political scene has the potential for four more years of intense polarization and gridlock. This and several other factors are likely to encourage Mr. Obama, like several other second-term presidents in the postwar period, to turn his focus toward foreign policy, especially if the economic recovery gains traction in the next 12 months.
The fact that Mr. Obama’s second term, from the vantage point of domestic policy, may not be a productive one is not unusual for re-elected incumbents. During their first four years in the White House, presidents usually succeed in enacting several core priorities (as Mr. Obama did with health care and his economic stimulus package), while key items that failed to secure a critical mass of support are rarely resurrected.
To be sure, Mr. Obama may still achieve some domestic policy success, including the possibility of a long-term federal budgetary “grand bargain” with Congress. But many re-elected presidents in the postwar era have found it difficult to acquire momentum behind an array of significant new legislative measures.
In part, this is because the party of re-elected presidents often hold a weaker position in Congress in second presidential terms of office. Thus, Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972 and Bill Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses where both the House of Representatives and Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents. This dynamic means policy initiative in Washington – if it exists at all – can edge back to Congress.
Another factor that can exacerbate the exhaustion of a president’s agenda in the second term is turnover of key personnel. Following re-election success, there’s often a sizable departure of cabinet, White House and other executive branch officials.
Already, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made clear they will not serve in Mr. Obama’s second term. The problem for the President is that it’s not easy to recruit figures of the same status and calibre as those that depart.
Two other issues have undercut the productiveness of second-term presidencies. First, re-elected administrations have often been affected by scandals (although the events that trigger the scandals can happen during first terms). Thus, Watergate ended the Nixon administration in 1974, Iran-contra badly damaged the Reagan White House and the Monica Lewinsky scandal led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998.
It remains to be seen if any major scandals will affect the Obama administration. But some Republicans, including Senator John McCain, are already pressing Mr. Obama on what they perceive as his team’s “cover-up” of the events surrounding the killing of four U.S. citizens in Libya, including the U.S. ambassador, in September. Mr. McCain, who was defeated by Mr. Obama in 2008, has even compared the affair to Watergate.
Even if Mr. Obama escapes scandal, he won’t be able to avoid the lame-duck factor. Since he can’t seek more than two terms, political focus will inevitably be diverted elsewhere, particularly after the 2014 congressional elections when the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into gear.
This overall domestic policy context means that Mr. Obama is likely to place increasing emphasis on foreign policy in the next four years. This is especially likely if the economic recovery builds pace in coming months.
Foreign policy could become an especially strong point of focus almost immediately if Israel ups the ante with Iran on the latter’s nuclear program. An Israeli strike, with or without the support of Washington, remains a real possibility in 2013. This issue thus has the potential to pose major headaches for Mr. Obama, and will require extremely skilled statesmanship, especially given his strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A stress on foreign policy would be reinforced by a desire to establish a legacy. Previous presidents have often seen foreign policy initiatives as a key part of the legacy they wish to build; Mr. Clinton, for instance, devoted much of his second term trying to secure a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis.
A decade and a half later, with still no deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, other areas are just as key to any eventual foreign policy legacy for Mr. Obama. In particular, following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the intended drawdown in Afghanistan, the President will seek to continue his post-9/11 reorientation of U.S. foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region and other strategic high-growth markets through initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Key threats on the horizon to maintaining this reorientation of policy remain the possibility of further devastating attacks on the U.S. homeland from al-Qaeda or a major surge of tension in the Middle East, perhaps emanating from Israeli-Iranian conflict or the implosion of Syria. These scenarios would only reinforce Mr. Obama’s focus on foreign policy in his second term.
Andrew Hammond, an associate partner at ReputationInc, was a former special adviser in the government of Tony Blair and a geopolitics consultant at Oxford Analytica.
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