The conventional political wisdom is that now that President Obama is safely back in the White House and does not have to worry about reelection, he can do what a few other freshly minted second term presidents have done. And that's take off the gloves and let fly with a series of bold, reform initiatives. FDR, Harry Truman, LBJ and Bill Clinton did that. Obama gave an early hint that he may be more aggressive in pushing the GOP on his plan to hike taxes on the wealthy. He also met with a cross-section of civil rights and African-American community action organization leaders. The meeting was billed as a talking session to discuss Obama's proposals to deal with the coming battle with the GOP over tax and budget issues. The leaders were in lock step with Obama's plan to hike taxes for the wealthy and to minimize the damage of spending cuts on programs that aid minorities and the poor.
A handful of black and Hispanic critics, though, have relentlessly lambasted Obama from the instant that he entered the White House to do more and say more about the dire plight of the black poor and to push harder for immigration reform. They argue that blacks and Hispanics made the colossal vote difference in ensuring that he became the first African-American president in 2008. In 2012 they again turned out in big numbers to ensure that he stayed in the White House. They don't buy Obama's frequent retort that he's the president of America, not black or Hispanic America. They counter that American politics is rooted squarely on appeals to and support from economic, gender, ethnic and economic special interest groups that have their own unique problems, needs and demands. The Democrats' big tent of special interest groups include blacks, gays, Hispanics, labor, single mid-income women and students. The GOP's special interest group tent includes major corporations, Christian evangelicals, conservative rural voters and the military. Presidents and presidential hopefuls can't afford to ignore their needs since they provide the muscle for them to win presidential elections.
But in Obama's case it ignores too much. The GOP is far from dead. It still controls the House, still has sufficient numbers in the Senate to dither, delay and obstruct Obama's judicial appointments, implementation of health care reforms, tax and budget proposals, and regulatory reforms that still need bipartisan cooperation to pass.
The GOP, with its sabre rattle of Obama over the possible appointment of UN ambassador Susan Rice to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, quickly provided ample warning that it can and will go to the barricades to hamper the president. The Supreme Court still has a five vote conservative majority and will decide a number of crucial cases on affirmative action, criminal justice, civil liberties and corporate liability issues. These cases will have a profound impact on law and public policy.
The GOP holds the majority of governorships and state houses nationally. They are major players when it comes to implementing the array of federal spending programs. This is especially vital in implementing health care reform. Some GOP governors have already played hard ball and said that they will not set up health provider exchanges and challenge the White House to do it. They also noisily announced that they will sharply pare back Medicaid allegedly because of unsustainable costs. This presents both an added challenge and headache for the Obama administration. It will require intense political jockeying to get the GOP run states to fully enact the health care provisions.
Then there's the tumultuous history of second term presidents who have barrelled ahead in the face of staunch opposition from the other party. FDR watched in anger and dismay as conservatives successfully pecked away at a big chunk of his New Deal initiatives. He also was soundly rebuked by Congress and incurred a backlash from the public when he tried to pack the Supreme Court. LBJ faced massive demonstrations and a major challenge from other Democratic presidential hopefuls when he escalated the Vietnam War. That played a big part in his decision not to run for reelection. Clinton faced a divisive and rancorous effort by the GOP to impeach him. The turmoil these presidents endured weakened their presidencies, emboldened their opponents and made it nearly impossible for them to get anything done.
Obama is in an equally tenuous position. He won big in the Electoral College, but his popular vote totals fell short of what he got in 2008. The near fifty percent of the popular vote that Romney got strongly signalled the country is still deeply divided, and the legions of Obama loathers that viciously hectored, harassed and slurred him during his first term have not faded away. This doesn't mean that Obama has to pander, conciliate or wet nurse the GOP to get things done as he was forced to do much of his first term. It does mean that he will not abandon the measured, balanced approach to governance that stamped his first term. The GOP's continuing challenge to him assures that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.