Curse of the lame duck stalks Obama

Things have gone hor­ri­bly wrong just a year into his sec­ond term, writes RU­PERT CORN­WELL

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

of Lin­coln’s great Civil War com­man­der Ulysses Grant, be­tween 1873 and 1877, was even more dis­as­trous than his first.

And as colum­nist Gail Collins help­fully re­minded me the other day in The New York Times, Grover Cleveland, af­ter be­ing re-elected in 1892, was af­flicted by mouth can­cer, be­fore be­ing po­lit­i­cally flat­tened by a fi­nan­cial cri­sis that lasted most of his sec­ond term.

More re­cently, the curse’s poster­child has been Richard Nixon, forced to re­sign less than two years af­ter one of the great­est land­slide vic­to­ries in US his­tory.

And who can for­get Dubya? “I’ve earned po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal and I in­tend to spend it,” he boasted im­me­di­ately af­ter de­feat­ing John Kerry in November 2004.

Then came Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, Iraq and the 2008 crash. Ge­orge W Bush left of­fice with Nixonesque ap­proval rat­ings; bet­ter, he must have thought, to have called it quits af­ter a sin­gle term, when he still had some po­lit­i­cal cash in the bank.

And now Obama. A year into his sec­ond term, and there hasn’t even been time to fas­ten the lame-duck la­bel around his neck, so fast have things gone wrong.

A few months ago, there were some dummy runs for dis­as­ter: the “scan­dal” over whether his ad­min­is­tra­tion lied over last year’s deadly at­tack on the US con­sulate in Beng­hazi, the news that the sup­pos­edly neu­tral tax au­thor­i­ties had been tar­get­ing right-wing po­lit­i­cal groups, and the rev­e­la­tion that his Jus­tice Depart­ment had been se­cretly col­lect­ing the phone records of re­porters. Those minitem­pests didn’t last. Whether the cur­rent storm will die so quickly is an­other mat­ter.

Obama’s vac­il­la­tions in the Mid­dle East have not only up­set ev­ery US ally in the re­gion, from Saudi Ara­bia and Turkey to Is­rael, but pro­vided Vladimir Putin with a chance to lec­ture the US on the op-ed page of The Times, a spec­ta­cle as grotesque as it was hu­mil­i­at­ing.

Mean­while, the req­ui­si­tion of a score of jour­nal­ists’ phone logs has paled be­side the rev­e­la­tion that the NSA has been scoop­ing up the in­ter­net records of about ev­ery hu­man be­ing on the planet, and lis­ten­ing in to An­gela Merkel’s cell­phone.

On top of that, we’ve had the govern­ment shut­down (not Obama’s fault, but which did not re­flect well on his abil­ity to wheel and deal) and, most re­cently, the sham­bolic launch of his sig­na­ture health­care re­form, in which he has been re­vealed as be­ing, shall we say, some­what eco­nom­i­cal with the truth.

Obama’s ap­proval rat­ing has dropped to 42 per­cent, not yet at Nixon or Bush lev­els, but the worst since he took of­fice.

And it all seems to fit a pat­tern. There’s some­thing about sec­ond terms. Vot­ers (not to men­tion colum­nists) get bored. They’ve had time to work out what they don’t like about a pres­i­dent. In Obama’s case, it’s a per­ceived las­si­tude, verg­ing on weak­ness, and a ten­dency not so much to act as re­act. The great talker, the stan­dard wis­dom runs, is not a great doer.

To be fair, no sec­ond-term pres­i­dent has ever had to con­front the sort of scorched earth op­po­si­tion of­fered by to­day’s Con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans. Obama suf­fers too from an­other eter­nal prob­lem of sec­ond-ter­m­ers. Many of his cab­i­net of­fi­cials and top aides have left govern­ment. The re­place­ments are okay, but not quite as good, and an ad­min­is­tra­tion’s per­for­mance suf­fers ac­cord­ingly.

All this is true now. As for Obama’s sec­ond-term agenda – im­mi­gra­tion re­form, cli­mate change leg­is­la­tion and so on – the prospects are dim. It seems at least as likely that he’ll be re­duced to fight­ing more point­less and counter-pro­duc­tive fights with Repub­li­cans over the bud­get and debt ceil­ing.

But the curse is not carved in stone. For one thing, so un­pop­u­lar are Repub­li­cans for the ex­cesses of the Tea Party and for hav­ing pro­voked the govern­ment shut­down that Democrats could re­gain the House in next year’s mid-terms. This could give Obama new life at the mo­ment he moves into lame-duck territory.

Sec­ond, of the 15 re-elected pres­i­dents, sev­eral have ac­tu­ally done quite well in their sec­ond term. Yes, Rea­gan II will be re­mem­bered for the Iran-Con­tra scan­dal. But he also signed a his­toric su­per­power arms con­trol pact that has­tened the end of the Cold War.

Or take Bill Clin­ton. His sec­ond term will be re­mem­bered not only for Mon­ica Lewin­sky and the first im­peach­ment of an in­cum­bent since An­drew John­son in 1868. It also brought eco­nomic boom and, unimag­in­able to­day, a fed­eral bud­get sur­plus. Clin­ton’s ap­proval rat­ings when he left of­fice were in the mid-60s, a fig­ure Obama would kill for. In­deed, if the con­sti­tu­tion had al­lowed it, a third term was Clin­ton’s for the ask­ing. Curse? What Curse? – The In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day


GREAT TALKER: Barack Obama’s vac­il­la­tions in the Mid­dle East have not only up­set ev­ery US ally in the re­gion, from Saudi Ara­bia and Turkey to Is­rael, but pro­vided Vladimir Putin, no less, with a chance to lec­ture the US on the op-ed page of The Times, a spec­ta­cle as grotesque as it was hu­mil­i­at­ing, says the writer.

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