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A Second Obama Term: Bad, But Not a Disaster

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Like nearly all Republicans who voted on Super Tuesday, I have no plans to cast a ballot for Barack Obama in November. Indeed, I struggle to think of a single major domestic policy position of the president's I support. The country needs new leadership. But we probably won't get it. Quite simply, modern American presidential incumbents have tended to lose only by crossing their own base and Obama hasn't done this. He'll have a huge war chest, a mobilized Democratic base, and, most likely, an improving economy. For all this, there's some reason to think that--contrary to a lot of speculation from the Right--that a second Obama term won't be an unmitigated disaster for conservative priorities.

Let's start by dismissing a few of the scare stories. Obama and his fellow Democrats are far too politically smart to try to challenge gun rights in any serious way or declare all out war on the Catholic Church. Tax hikes, yes, are inevitable under Obama. But they probably would be under a Republican president unless he's willing to the hard work of actually changing the Medicare program for current and near future beneficiaries. (They're a key Republican voting block and just won't support changes.) That doesn't mean plenty of Republican fears aren't justified. An Obama second term, for example, would mean almost all of the president's healthcare plan will be implemented. But many things Obama might try just won't go anywhere. A second term Obama might well make a stab at higher energy taxes in the name of fighting climate change, but there's almost no way such a proposal could pass the Senate.

The history of second terms bears this out. Major legislation like Dwight Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System, Ronald Reagan's tax relief package, and George W. Bush's Medicare drug benefit passed during their respective presidents' first terms. When presidents have achieved significant things during their second terms in office, they have happened either because the other party forced their hand (Bill Clinton's balanced budget) or in areas of policy the president alone dominates (Ronald Reagan's signature on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.) Every lesson of history suggests a second Obama term would mean a weaker presidency. Even if Obama does harbor secret fantasies of transforming the United States into a giant Marxist kolkhoz, in other words, he won't be able to put them into practice.

This means one of two outcomes. First, Obama could simply decide to stand his ground and duke it out with Republicans over every possible issue with the aim of preparing the turf for a designated successor in 2016. Unless Republicans play their own cards terribly, however, taking this route won't work. It doesn't deliver anything to the Democratic base and, ultimately, will probably make people want a Republican President. (So this will be a GOP victory of a sort.)

The more interesting possibility is this: Obama will attempt to remain relevant by taking a page from Bill Clinton's playbook and triangulating the more extreme parts of both parties. And this is a real chance for moving forward on key conservative priorities. Democratic Party support for a Paul Ryanesque "premium support" approach to Medicare reform already appears to be gaining steam (the Progressive Policy Institute has signed on) and the President could "save Medicare" while moving the budget towards balance by hitching his own cart to the bandwagon. A Social Security reform that reduced benefits for well off people while upping incentives for employers to contribute to 401(k) plans also seems like something that could get Democratic Party support if the president signed on too. While large tax cuts seem almost impossible under any circumstances given the deficit picture, Obama and other Democrats have already had some useful suggestions about simplifying and restructuring the tax code. And so forth.

I don't want a second Obama term at all. It will result in many policies I disagree with being advanced. But I tend to think it would still present at least some opportunities for those of us on the Right side of the political spectrum.