Daniel W. Drezner

The dirty little secret about second-term presidents

The dirty little secret about second-term presidents

ABC News reports on a "hot mic" moment between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev: 

At the tail end of his 90 minute meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev Monday, President Obama said that he would have “more flexibility” to deal with controversial issues such as missile defense, but incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to give him “space.”

The exchange was picked up by microphones as reporters were let into the room for remarks by the two leaders.

The exchange:

President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.

President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…

President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.

President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.

Now, compared to past "hot mic" moments, this certainly seems less, well, profane.   Nevertheless, it has gotten the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin all hot and bothered about the hidden Obama that will emerge in 2013:

It’s helpful to have a vivid illustration of this, but is there anyone who thinks Obama, should he get a second term, wouldn’t run wild with policies and positions that the majority of the electorate oppose? Otherwise, he’d roll them out now, of course….

Elections are taken as mandates by elected officials and the media (even if the message is less clear than the winner would have us believe).

In sum, the election is not simply a referendum on President Obama’s actions to date; it’s essentially a blank check for the president’s second term. Romney should be asking wary independent and moderates: Is there a scintilla of a chance that Obama would be less liberal in a second term?

Rubin’s logic seems pretty clear:  Obama is really a liberal, and free of political constraint — particularly on the foreign policy remit — he’ll revert to type.  There’s just one problem:  based on recent evidence, there’s an excellent chance Obama will be less liberal in the second term. 

Consider the last three two-term presidents:  Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43.  I’ll grant this is a very small sample, but bear with me.  Did their second-term policies look different from their first-term? 

You bectha.  Reagan tacked in a decidedly liberal direction with respect to the Soviet Union, switching from rhetoric about the "evil empre" to  cutting substantive arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.  Clinton, on the other hand, tacked in a more conservative direction.  After being enamored of multilateralism and leery of using fore in his first term, he became more comfortable with using force and using it outside of UN strictures in his second term.  Finally, Bush 43’s second terms was decidedly more liberal.  In his first term, he declared an "Axis of Evil" and invaded Iraq without UN support.  In his second term, however, the Bush administration was decidedly more dovish, working through the UN on both Iran and North Korea, demonstrating a willingness to directly negotiate with the Iranians, and refusing to use force in Syria.  This, by the way, is why claiming a continuity between Bush 43 and Obamas is not quite as much of a political jab as people like to claim.  The dfifferences between Bush in 2003 and Bush in 2008 were massive. 

Now, these narratives are not really as clean as the last paragraph suggests.  Reagan also embraced Iran/Contra in his second term.  In Clinton’s second term he pushed hard to address US arrears to the UN.  And Bush had some elements of compasionate conservatism liberalism in his first term, what with PEPFAR and a refusal to declare a clash of civilizations following the 9/11 attacks. 

What’s striking, however, is that recent second-termers have not reverted to their ideological bliss point — if anything it’s been the reverse, they’ve tacked away from their starting point.  Part of this is circumstances.  Reagan had, in Gorbachev, a real negotiating partner in his second term.  Bush had to be more circumspect on Iran and North Korea after the cost and constraint of military operatons in Iraq and Afghanistan.  All three presidents had less favorable legislatures in their second term than their first.

Still, it’s not all about circumstances.  What gives?  I’d argue that precisely because presidents have fewer foreign policy constraints than dometic ones, they feel free to pursue their preferred set of policies from day one.  Reality, however, quickly determines which ideas are working and which do  not have any staying power.  Over time, therefore, presidents change tack until they hit on a more successful formula.  This usually means overcoming one’s personal ideology and embracing new ideas. 

I’ve argued that this is exactly what Obama has done in his first term — and I’m hardly the only one.  And, so, yes, contra Rubin, I think the notion that a second-term of President Obama will be the second coming of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty requires a willful misreading of Obama’s first term of foreign policy — as well as ignorance of the last thirty years of American foreign policy. 

Am I missing anything?