Why do presidents get in trouble in their second terms? They think they have a mandate when they don’t. They believe they’re stronger politically than they really are. They’re convinced they can get away with things other presidents couldn’t. They think too highly of themselves personally and act accordingly.
President Obama hasn’t hit the second-term skids—yet. And he insists he knows the perils of four more years in the White House and how to avoid them. But there are signs of trouble ahead, signs that Obama and his advisers appear not to have recognized.
Sign number one is the sequester. It’s given Obama numerous opportunities to overreach, and he seems determined to seize all of them. The first: blaming Republicans for the automatic spending cuts that went into effect last week. The idea for the sequester, as everyone now knows, originated in the White House. And contrary to the president’s claim, it did not allow for substituting tax hikes for cuts.
Then the president unleashed a campaign of near-hysteria over the sequester’s impact. The cuts amount to $44 billion from a $3.6 trillion budget between now and the end of the 2013 fiscal year on September 30. The White House clanged the bell for all hands on deck and deployed cabinet members, agency heads, and Democratic governors to sow fear in the land with predictions of widespread disruptions in the lives of most Americans.
Obama himself led the fear-mongering. The health of children will suffer, he said. Hundreds of thousands will be deprived of flu vaccinations and cancer screenings. Federal prosecutors will “let criminals go.” Unemployment will soar. Border security will be harmed, as will military readiness and “our ability to respond to threats in unstable parts of the world.”
Whew! Obama’s list of horrors is longer than Dante’s. But after the House and Senate rejected his vague plan for more tax increases than spending cuts, the president faces the temptation to further overreach and make his worst-case scenario come alive—to vindicate his dire predictions.
The problem is the public knows there’s fat and waste in the federal budget. And it should be easy to expose, say, that furloughs of air traffic controllers or food inspectors were ordered when the required cuts could have been satisfied by eliminating conferences, administrative jobs, and a federal pay raise due April 1.
Obama sneered at a suggestion from Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal when he met with governors at the White House last week. If the president delayed Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and subsidies offered by state exchanges for two years, that would more than offset the sequester. Obama, in response, said he wouldn’t let opponents succeed in blocking his health plan by the back door after they’d failed through the front door.
You may not have heard of Organizing for Action (OFA). It’s the organization for continuing the Obama campaign during his second term. Its ostensible aim is to promote the president’s policy priorities. To do so, it intends to raise $50 million, chiefly from big donors.
OFA is unprecedented. No previous president had such an organization or even considered having one. It’s a kind of private political pressure group. Had President George W. Bush set one up, the media would have pounced and demanded he jettison it. But Obama has gotten minimal pushback from the press.
The real purpose of OFA, I suspect, is to attack Republicans to improve Democratic chances of capturing the House in 2014 and gaining total control of Washington. By exploiting a loophole in campaign law and ethics regulations, OFA is officially a “social welfare group,” at least nominally nonpolitical. But its first ad targeted Republican House members on gun control. A second purpose is to spare Obama his least favorite task, dealing face-to-face with members of Congress, especially Republicans.
But politics isn’t the problem OFA creates for Obama. Nor is the hypocrisy of establishing it, given Obama’s past assaults on special interests looking for favors and preferences in Washington. Rather, it’s the special interests seeking access and favors by writing big checks to the new group. OFA is an invitation to crony capitalism and scandal. It offers “ample potential for influence peddling,” the New York Times said.
OFA’s intention, as reported by Nicholas Confessore of the Times, was to reward $500,000 donors with quarterly meetings with Obama—in other words, provide access for contributions. But White House press secretary Jay Carney said this won’t happen. He referred to OFA as “independent,” which it is, technically. In reality, it’s a subsidiary of the White House, answers to Obama, is run by his campaign aides, and is empowered by the campaign’s vast database of supporters and Obama followers on Twitter, almost 28 million strong.
Another sign of possible trouble ahead comes from the media. Yes, it’s true you would have gone broke betting the press would get tough with Obama over the past four years. And the prospect of treating him the way the media would a Republican president is nil.
But on the sequester, Obama hasn’t gotten the usual free ride. The Associated Press referred to “sky-is-falling hype” in a story about the Obama-led claims of looming disaster. “For most Americans, though, it’s far from certain they will have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day if the budget-shredder known as the sequester comes to pass,” the AP said. Fact checkers haven’t been kind either.
Obama, from all appearances, isn’t worried about serious second-term difficulties. He’s more full of himself than usual. He’s made it clear he prefers hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities to spending time with Washington’s political class. And he may be right in thinking his situation, postreelection, makes him immune to the woes of earlier presidents. But maybe not.
It makes an enormous difference whether he stumbles badly over the next year. If the president is forced on the defensive, Democratic prospects for winning the House in 2014 will evaporate and Republican hopes of gaining the Senate will soar again. And Obama may realize he isn’t exempt from the normal workings of politics, as he once thought.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.