As President Obama begins the turn from the end of his first term to the beginning of his second term, let us pause and see where the next four years are headed and what the president might want to be cognizant of and do in his second term.
There are five key points to keep in mind that have determined the success or failure of a President in his second term.
1. Turnover in staff and cabinet leadership. It is very important for a president to bring in new leaders in a second term. The folks that served in the first term are tired, exhausted, and lack much of the creativity needed to energize a second term. Presidents have made a mistake in the past when they believed wholesale continuity was most important. Many of these second terms with retained old leadership have ended up sputtering and not accomplishing much. The presidents who have brought in new leadership have had a tendency to create more momentum for needed change in the country, though obviously this depends on who those leaders are and whether they have qualifications needed. President Obama seems to be aware of this, since he will be having a new Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury, Secretary of Defense, and Chief of Staff, among others. Presidents should err on the side of too much change, rather than too little, and I think President Obama understands this.
2. Second term scandals. Be constantly aware and diligent in avoiding scandals and big mistakes that could doom the second term no matter the personnel or vision in place. Setting a second term on autopilot is a good way to encourage the opportunity for a scandal. And arrogance that you no longer have to stand for re-election can also breed the increased likelihood of an ethical lapse. Some times these scandals are born in the first term (Watergate), and then emerge in a second term because of the desire to keep them secret and because some leaders think they are no longer accountable. President Obama needs to be careful about this point. His tendency at times has been to think he is above being questioned and in some of his dealings with the press this January a bit of the arrogance has shown. He needs to watch out for this because as Proverbs says, “pride goeth before a fall” (i.e. Lance Armstrong).
3. Rediscover first term vision. It is also important for President Obama to look back at the biggest things he didn’t accomplish in his first term and renew an effort to get that done. And the most fundamental vision he laid out in 2008 in his election that he failed on was bringing Washington D.C. together in a spirit of bipartisanship and lessening the polarization and vitriol in the federal government. It actually has gotten worse than what it was before President Obama (and that is hard to believe because it was pretty polarized with President Bush). The President touched again on this in his campaign for a second term, and unless this dysfunction is fixed in Washington, our trust in government and our economy will continue to struggle. We are in the bitterest partisan atmosphere since the Civil War, and so far, the President hasn’t been able to play the part of Lincoln well.
4. Simplify second term agenda. Many Presidents have beleaguered second terms because they bit off way more than they could chew. They try to do too many things, and they end up not doing any of them well. Doing a few simple and direct things in a second term is the path to success. And as mentioned above, if the only thing President Obama did in a second term was fix the dysfunction in Washington and unite us better as a country, then he would go down in history as a great president. At this moment, the president isn’t even concentrating on that. The list of key priorities the president has so far annunciated is already growing long and complex: gun control legislation, immigration reform, solving our fiscal problems, entitlement reform, and renewed focus on jobs. While I believe a president can walk and chew gum at the same time, and much needs to be done on all these fronts, he needs to be careful to preserve his political capital for doses.
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5. Legacy. The final item President Obama should focus on is what is his political legacy post the second term. Who are the new brand of leaders he is bringing in and getting ready to carry on what he began? Who is going to run for office up and down the ballot who served with him or whom he helped launch to spread forth more of his brand of leadership and policies. And it needs to be young leaders who got into politics primarily on behalf of President Obama. At this point, I don’t see much of this. Vice-President Biden running for President and Rahm Emmanuel getting elected mayor of Chicago doesn’t really count as new brands of leaders who got their start with President Obama. This was a huge failure of the Bush Presidency where no legacy of new leadership was left behind. There was no really new widespread group of folks who carried on the legacy of Bush leadership. President Obama still has time, but it means showcasing new young leaders in his second term.
If President Obama wants to impact this country in a second term and for a generation to come, these are five things it might be a good idea to keep on his bathroom mirror at the White House. To be judged as one of the greats in history, it takes more than just winning two elections handily and serving out eight years in a predictable way.
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