Today, the second-term optimists among Democrats say the president is contending with a much stronger and stable economy than the one he inherited four years ago. They see a more self- assured chief executive. One outside operative contrasts a session he had with Obama four years ago with one a few weeks ago, saying the president is a different man, more confident, clearer on what he wants to do.
Obama no longer harbors illusions, these Democrats believe, about Republican congressional leaders. He’s willing, even eager, for combat. Republicans, whose standing with the public continues its free fall, are one of Obama’s greatest assets.
Whatever the political limitations, historians say Obama needs to think big, starting with his second Inaugural Address.
“He has a chance to explain where America ought to be in 10 or 20 years,” says H.W. Brands of the University of Texas, who also attended the scholars’ dinner with the president. “He can rise above everyday politics and speak to history. Lincoln did it in 1865; FDR in 1937. Now it’s Obama’s chance.”
Some Democrats say the president would be able to make a more compelling case if his inner circle weren’t so insular. The Team of Rivals of the early first term, when the president brought in diverse voices, has turned into the Band of Brothers, with a premium on personal loyalty. Top White House aides have let it be known that they will be making more personnel and policy decisions in the economics and foreign policy arenas.
And while Obama may appreciate the dangers of second-term overreach, he’s quick to claim a mandate on issues, an assertion with a dubious historical resonance.
“Presidents should erase the word ‘mandate’ from their vocabulary,” Norton Smith says. “At best, it’s treacherous.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.