By Marcus Johnson
Obama’s hypothetical second term has been on the minds of both Democrats and Republicans since his first term began. Now that a second term is inching closer to reality, both parties (and everyone else for that matter) are imprinting their greatest hopes and fears onto the President. Liberals hope for widespread reforms and the completion of social initiatives such as the Dream Act. Conservatives warn against out of control spending and record tax hikes. LGBTQ activists believe the president will deliver a national solution to the same-sex marriage issue, and black rights groups think the President will work on issues concerning African Americans. The truth probably lies somewhere in between these hopes and nightmares. Obama is very unlikely to try anything drastic, and without control of Congress, it’s unlikely he would have the power to do so anyway.
There has been chatter throughout Obama’s presidency that he would end Bush’s wars in the Middle East. It was certainly a campaign promise, but Obama has not taken any steps toward keeping it. In fact, he’s played a key role in the conflicts in Libya and Egypt, stepped up his role in Afghanistan, and threatened action in Syria. While the death of Osama Bin Laden was a definite political “win” for the administration (as well as a chance to declare victory and end the War on Terror), Obama continues to fight the losing battle of U.S. imperialism in the region. A second term would almost certainly see no change here.
Israel’s possible strike on Iran could be a game changer though. If it happens before November, Obama might not have a second term. At any rate a botched attempt by Israel could have some extreme repercussions for the United States, starting with the militarization of Iran and the impending rise in gas prices due to regional instability. If Iran impedes the flow of oil in the region, tensions will rise, and the United States will have to get directly involved. But the Israeli strike could also force Russia to protect its Iranian ally, leading to a potentially serious complication. This problem could be resolved by cutting ties or working less closely with Israel, something Obama has shown no inclination of doing.
One of Obama’s initiatives during his second term would be to raise taxes on the super wealthy. On numerous occasions he’s stated that he wants higher taxes on millionaires and billionaires in order to help pay for government spending and deficit reduction. While this plan makes financial sense, Obama might not be politically strong enough to put it in place. Unless the Democrats take back control of the Senate in November, this plan seems farfetched, especially when you look at Obama’s track record in working with Republicans. Even when Obama had control of Congress during the first two years of his Presidency, his pursuit of bi-partisanship damaged his reputation in Washington and empowered Republicans to stand up to him. There is almost zero chance they’ll support him on a bill that raises taxes for the rich, a move that for them would be akin to career suicide. This will likely be a campaign promise that fades to the wayside during Obama’s second term.
Obama has also proposed making higher education more affordable and creating more manufacturing jobs. But he has yet to say how he would go about doing either. He’s also set a goal of trying to regulate Wall Street, and while it makes economic sense, Obama is probably not strong enough or politically savvy enough to pull off anything truly groundbreaking. Another issue the President has talked about is immigration reform, which is likely to shore up the Hispanic vote; however the President has stood by for years while ICE raids have jailed and deported millions of illegal immigrants.
It’s tough to see how much Obama can accomplish at this point during his second term. If the economy swings back to Bill Clinton levels, it will greatly increase his political clout, but at this point that seems unlikely. Realistically, Obama will face a divided Congress that might even have a Republican majority in both Houses. All of his legislative initiatives will be greatly contested, and he will have to show improved political skill if he is going to achieve anything.
It will be interesting to see how Obama deals with foreign policy issues, where it almost seems he will have fewer constraints and greater possibilities. A potentially serious Israel-Iran (and then United States-Russia?) conflict could define his second term. The new governments of Iraq, Libya, and Egypt will reflect the power of the United States to create and keep the change they want abroad. Will these governments be the United States’ allies or will they be chaotic, or worse, militant Islamic regimes? There is always some uncertainty in political events, so there is no telling if a major event will render all of these points moot, and give Obama vast political clout (like 9/11 did for Bush). But besides that, Obama has shown limited political savvy to achieve his domestic initiatives and has actually extended Bush’s foreign policy. Is there any reason to expect much to change over the next four years?