Monday, June 3, 2013

Barack Obama and the dreaded curse of the second term

It's called the “second term curse”. Every recent president fortunate enough to win re-election has been unfortunate enough to have to deal with some sort of scandal, either real or fabricated.

President Obama's second term agenda hit a brick wall last month when a series of these so-called scandals took over the airwaves, as the media filled the gap left by some slow news days.

Just over four months into Obama's second term, he is mired in three scandals that threaten his ability to govern effectively for the remainder of his time in office, or at least until the 2014 mid-term elections.

Obama is facing his toughest time in office after the never-ending criticism of how his administration handled the Benghazi attacks, the IRS' targeting of Tea Party groups, and the Department of Justice's probe into the AP journalists' phone records. The focus has shifted away from the broader policy debates that the president spoke of in his second inaugural address in January.

But do the recent events that the Republicans are calling scandals really rise to the level of scandals, and is Obama really becoming mired in the dreaded “second term curse”?

Historically, Obama seems to be falling into the same pattern as his recent predecessors. Watergate led Richard Nixon all the way to his political downfall. Ronald Reagan got caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal, causing historians to put an asterisk next to his presidency. Bill Clinton made Monica Lewinsky famous, causing a media firestorm that practically overshadowed everything else he did. George W. Bush showed his ineptitude by screwing up the response to Hurricane Katrina and leading us into the Iraq War after false reports that weapons of mass destruction existed.

Obama surely has studied the history of past two-term presidents, and learned that the best thing to do at the slightest hint of a scandal is to get out in front of the story. The Obama administration seems to be playing catch-up to events that, on closer inspection, don't rise to the level of Watergate, Iran-Contra, or WMDs in Iraq.

The Obama administration should have been prepared for the Republican Party to take things one step beyond obstructionism. The GOP's first term agenda was to defeat Obama. The second term, as history has shown, is the time that the opposing party does whatever it takes to pin a scandal on the incumbent president.

The problem with the current trio of events labeled scandals by the GOP and the conservative media is that they don't pack the same punch as Nixon's Watergate, for example.

How many hours of non-stop reporting about the IRS can we watch? The AP phone records scandal? I'm bored already. And Benghazi seems to be more about what it was originally: an attack on Hillary Clinton, and her likely 2016 presidential run. The Benghazi story may or may not fizzle out by 2016, but either way, it could bypass Obama and land on Clinton. But most Americans are as bored as I am about Benghazi, and I suspect that most Republicans don't know where it is.

All of this could have been predicted. The Republicans will do anything to discredit the president, and the longer a president is in office, the more executive-branch decisions cross his desk. With every passing month, it becomes more likely that at least one of his many decisions will turn out to be wrong, ill-advised or worse. By the second term, even the best, luckiest and smartest president will have made an incorrect decision.

Obama has made mistakes, judgment calls and taken risks. The killing of Osama bin Laden could have taken a very bad turn. The attack in Benghazi did turn out badly, as did the IRS debacle and the AP phone record incident. But were these events under the direction of President Obama, and was there a cover-up by the president? If you listen to Republican leaders, Obama is guilty of covering up just about everything. It doesn't seem so long ago that the president was involved in a massive conspiracy to cover up his real birthplace, Kenya.

All of this leads back to the question: Is Obama a victim of the “second term curse”? No, he's a victim of “second term Republican obstructionism”.