POLITICS
01/21/2013 09:27 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2013

Obama's Destiny As The Next JFK Faces Second-Term Obstacles -- And Bill Clinton

WASHINGTON -- As the sun rises on his second inaugural, President Obama is already a significant figure in American history. And he is poised to become a legend within the Democratic party.

He is the nation's first black president. He pushed a sweeping health care bill through Congress. And he got reelected. President Barack Obama is on a trajectory to be an inspiration to new generations of Democrats, in the mold of Kennedy and FDR.

Obama’s second term will be the crucible in which his legacy will either be burnished or brought down a notch.

"He had a legacy as something unique only in getting elected. He already had something," Robert Gibbs, the president's adviser and White House press secretary for the administration's first two years, told The Huffington Post.

"Regardless of what happened, he was always going to be something that was totally different," Gibbs said. "Now I think though he gets the real opportunity to add something other than election night in 2008 to that legacy."

But Obama’s second term will also put a spotlight on two tensions that are bound to grow. As the president begins to think about his place in history, he will be in unspoken competition with the man whose wife he defeated for the Democratic nomination in 2008, who may bid to succeed him in 2016. And second, some of the biggest policy challenges of the president’s second term are going to require him to take on his own base.

The first point of friction is one that will consume political observers for years: Is former President Bill Clinton content to play second fiddle to Obama in the Democratic hall of icons?

It was Clinton, after all, who put Kennedy at the center of the TV ad introducing himself to the nation as a presidential candidate in 1992.

But many Democrats have come to view Clinton as the set-up man for Obama.

At a campaign rally in mid-October, near Steubenville, Ohio, the retired Rev. Wayne Price, of Macedonia Baptist Church, introduced Clinton -- who was there campaigning for Obama -- this way:

"O Lord," Price said, "as President Bill Clinton comes clearing the way this afternoon, as John the Baptist did for a mighty man of God and principle, we pray that you would anoint him with words of wisdom."

Clinton loyalists say there is room for both men in the Democratic pantheon.

"I don't see any of this as in conflict with Clinton at all," said Paul Begala, a White House adviser to Clinton who raised money for a super PAC supporting Obama in the last election. "This is a relay race. It's not a sprint of one against the other."

Yet there are subtle challenges in the way Begala and other Clintonites talk about the two presidents.

"Clinton completely reinvented the Democratic party, in a way that no one has since FDR," Begala said, pointing out that Democrats had lost five of the previous six presidential elections before 1992 and that it is "hard to really express how down Democrats were."

"Obama inherited a reasonably strong party, a very strong party, I think built by Clinton," Begala said. "It's not that he exists because of Clinton. It's that we all exist because of who came before us."

Begala acknowledged that Obama moved the Democratic party beyond what Clinton achieved.

"[Obama] took us into the 21st century. His coalition is so impressive. Clinton was very strong with African-Americans and Latinos. So was Obama. But Obama has really just exploded the Democratic advantage with young people,” Begala said. “The interesting thing is Asian-Americans voted overwhelmingly against Clinton, and overwhelmingly for Obama. He's growing in all the political constituencies that a political party wants to grow in. This guy is a phenom.”

But Begala questioned whether the Democrats can hold the gains Obama brought them in 2008 and 2012.

"If the Democrats can lock that in -- again, this is what Clinton used to say but it applies to Obama, too. Clinton used to say, 'I don't just want to be Michael Jordan, who played the game real well, but then when he retired, you know, the Bulls lost. I want to set up something more permanent," Begala said. "And I'm quite sure that's the way President Obama is viewing things. And the question will be, 'Can Democrats hold the Obama coalition without Obama?'"

Greg Craig, a veteran of Democratic politics who was a close adviser to former Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), coordinated Clinton's impeachment defense in the late '90s, but then endorsed Obama in 2007 when he was running against Hillary Clinton, and was Obama's chief White House counsel during his first year in office.

Craig is an Obama guy now, but he agreed with Begala that the question of whether Democrats can sustain Obama’s gains is a big one.

"That's the Washington, D.C. parlor game of the moment, discussing whether the Obama coalition is a coalition that's going to survive Obama and carry on, or is it just uniquely Barack Obama's achievement?" Craig told The Huffington Post. "Or does the vote of the women and the young people and the African-Americans and the gays, you know, and the Hispanics survive and go on and create additional Democratic majorities in the future?"

"And that's too early too tell, much too early to tell," Craig said.

Gibbs said he was confident that if Obama passed immigration reform, it would go a long way toward putting the new Democratic coalition on solid footing.

"[Obama] has broadened the Democratic coalition politically more because of who he is. And I think quite frankly … he'll cement even the broadening of the Democratic party in the next year or so by getting comprehensive immigration reform done," Gibbs said.

The dynamic between Obama and Clinton promises to be one of the more fascinating political dramas of the next decade and beyond, especially as long as the 42nd president remains healthy and active.

Clinton alienated many in his own party by going for Obama's jugular during the 2008 Democratic primary, even comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson and accusing the Obama campaign of playing the race card against him and his wife, Hillary, who was Obama's chief competitor then.

But Clinton clawed back a great deal of good will by campaigning relentlessly for Obama during the 2012 campaign, culminating in his triumphant speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C.

Going forward, whether Hillary Clinton, the outgoing secretary of state, decides to run will impact Bill's legacy. It would keep him firmly planted in the public spotlight, and give him his own historic achievement, as the first man to be both president and the spouse of a president.

Clinton will want to be known as the man who rescued the Democratic party from its doldrums, bringing it back from a swing too far to the left and making the idea of government action palatable again, while associating Democrats with economic growth.

"It's always a little controversial, because it's not classic liberal. But I do think he showed the Democratic party that there is a way of governing and campaigning that appeals to independent voters, even some conservative voters, and a way of putting a working majority together for Democrats," Joe Lockhart, Clinton's White House press secretary from 1998 to 2000, said in an interview with HuffPost.

Obama will want to be known as the man who brought the nation back from near disaster, expanded the Democratic party's reach and helped level the playing field for those who did not have power or resources, expanding opportunity for the lower and middle class.

There are three kinds of issues on the second term to-do list: first-term accomplishments that need to be followed through on, like health care; first-term failures that have become second-term initiatives, like immigration; and potential landmines to avoid and -- in the event they explode -- manage. This last category is most likely to include trouble on the foreign policy front, or the kind of scandal cum congressional probe that tends to bedevil second-term presidents.

Gibbs said implementing the health care bill, moving immigration reform legislation through Congress and passing substantive tax reform and entitlement reform deals are the keys to a successful second term for Obama.

"The onus is really on the administration to ensure [health care] is done correctly, because I think it is hugely important," Gibbs said.

Obama faces a Republican majority in the House that is determined to try to dismantle his signature achievement. A source close to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) told HuffPost that top Republicans believe there is bipartisan support to repeal key elements of Obamacare, including the Independent Advisory Payment Board, the medical device tax and the tax on health insurers.

Obama and his advisers also want to be known for keeping the country out of a second Great Depression. Economic growth is a key factor in his second term, and another downturn would not only bring great pain to many Americans, it would damage his reputation for the ages.

It is concern over the nation’s fiscal health that will drive the Obama White House toward its biggest showdowns with the progressive left.

For example, the White House sees energy as a huge economic factor, especially the potential for massively increased domestic production of oil and natural gas. But it is currently trying to figure out how to balance this domestic energy boom with environmental concerns.

Then there is the idea of tax reform. Obama appears to be changing the actual definition of the term from lowering marginal rates and closing loopholes to just doing the latter. But there will still be pressure on him to do both, since this concept has a lot of bipartisan support.

And then there’s entitlements. Gibbs has encouraged the administration to proactively propose changes to Medicare and Social Security, since "entitlements are going to be restructured at some point."

"Somebody needs to speak a little bit of truth to power to the Democratic party and say, 'Who do you want to restructure this?' Because if you keep saying no to anything, we will not always have a Democratic president and 55 Democratic senators. You know?" Gibbs said. "President Paul Ryan does entitlement reform a whole lot different, or president Marco Rubio does it a whole lot differently than President Barack Obama."

One starting point for Obama’s confrontation with his own base on entitlements is over using chained CPI to calculate annual increases in Social Security benefits. Chained CPI is a tool for measuring inflation that is more accurate than the current method but which would slow the rise of benefits. Obama offered to include it as a concession in talks with Republicans over the fiscal cliff in December, but it was not ultimately included.

Private conversations with administration officials indicate they will move again to support chained CPI, despite outcries from groups like AARP.

But every step that the president goes beyond chained CPI will bring him into another great tension of his second term: like with energy, entitlements is an issue with great impact on the country’s fiscal health, but it is also one that is causing great division and disagreement on the left.

And if Obama wants to compromise on these two big issues, he will have to weigh how much he wants to chip away at the monument to him that Democrats are already building in their minds.

This article is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read other posts in the series, click here.

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