President Obama will enter his second term a lame duck from Day One. In fact, he has been limping along for some time already. The Nov. 6 result was no political mandate. In his victory speech, Mr. Obama told supporters, “You made your voice heard,” but the voice was more like a whisper. He attracted 9 million fewer votes than he did in his first campaign for “hope and change,” which is slightly more than John McCain earned in 2008. Mr. Obama is the first president since George Washington ran unopposed in 1792 to be re-elected with fewer popular votes, and he is the first since 1916 to regain office while shedding electoral votes. Thus Mr. Obama continues his march into the history books by securing the feeblest re-election ever.
The momentum and vast store of public approval Mr. Obama enjoyed at the outset of his first term has expired. In its place, he inherits a significant economic mess from himself, and he has no idea what to do about it. The administration’s lack of a plan for the second term will soon become apparent — the glossy pamphlet the Obama campaign distributed in the closing weeks of the race was no legislative agenda.
Presidential authority generally winds down in a second term. There are exceptions to this rule, but the exceptions are reserved for presidents backed by landslide re-elections like Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. These national leaders combined electoral momentum with renewed vision to hit their second term running. By contrast, Mr. Obama promoted his lack of new initiatives as a virtue. His weakness will be compounded if he does not shake up his White House team. The sense of sameness, staleness and weariness among long-serving members of the administration promotes a general mood of inertia.
When it comes to America’s problems, there will be no slowdown. The hard issues that were shunted aside until after the election will soon come due.
The looming fiscal cliff will be Mr. Obama’s first post-election test.
He is expected to try to make good on his pledge to close the budget gap through higher taxes on incomes, capital gains and dividends.
This would depress markets, stifle growth and prevent job creation. It’s the perfect plan for people who want more of the same.
Whether Mr. Obama can pull off his tax agenda is an open question. He lacks the political clout to get it through the Republican-led House, and he has shown no inclination to seek compromise. Leaving the House in GOP hands confirms the public’s ambivalence toward Mr. Obama. The American people did not want a repeat of the first-term orgy of big-ticket legislation that has left the government further awash in debt. Gridlock is a preferable alternative to Mr. Obama’s fiscal recklessness.
After the election, the United States is left virtually where it was on the day before the election, with the same weak leadership facing mounting crises. Calling Mr. Obama a lame duck simply affirms what has been true all along.