It seems to me that the job of political scientists is to identify patterns in political history as a way to predict the future. One of those patterns that has been pretty generally accepted is that once a presidential campaign begins to replace a second-termer, the White House occupant goes into “lame duck” status. That is certainly what everyone was expecting from President Obama after the huge losses Democrats suffered in the 2014 midterms.
But as we all know by now, the President decided he’d start a new pattern…one that saw his remaining two years as a “fourth quarter” in which he vowed to play to the end. His success in being able to do that hinged on several factors.
1. A scandal-free presidency
During my lifetime, no two-term president has managed to escape the drag of either scandal or terribly flawed policies at the end of their second term. Johnson had Vietnam. Nixon had Watergate. Reagan had Iran/Contra. Clinton had impeachment. Bush had the war in Iraq and the Great Recession.
Recently David Brooks noted that the current administration is the exception to that pattern.
I have my disagreements, say, with President Obama, but President Obama has run an amazingly scandal-free administration, not only he himself, but the people around him. He’s chosen people who have been pretty scandal-free.
That means that not only does the President maintain the good will of most Americans, but he doesn’t have to devote an inordinate amount of time to defending himself or attempting to fix policy failures.
2. Previous work is bearing fruit
Last December President Obama sat down for an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. In response to questions about some of the bold moves he’d already taken since the 2014 midterms, the President said this:
But at the end of 2014, I could look back and say we are as well-positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically, that American leadership is more needed around the world than ever before — and that is liberating in the sense that a lot of the work that we’ve done is now beginning to bear fruit. And it gives me an opportunity then to start focusing on some of the other hard challenges that I didn’t always have the time or the capacity to get to earlier in my presidency.
The major things he is referring to are that the economy was recovering, healthcare reform was working and ground troops were out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. But in addition to all that, diplomacy had opened the doors in Cuba, brought Iran to the negotiating table and led to an agreement with China about climate change.
3. Pen and phone strategy
A lot of the assumption about President Obama’s pending lame duckness had to do with the intransigence of Congress that was only bolstered by the 2014 midterms. But in January of 2014, the President instructed his Cabinet to bring him ideas he could implement via executive order or through persuasion with business leaders and local/state governments. Thus began his “pen and phone” strategy that led to everything from DAPA to new rules for overtime pay to working with local governments to provide paid sick/family leave.
4. Big events
Political pundits are often guilty of assuming that whatever is happening today will be a permanent narrative. But national/international events have a way of changing the current dynamic. Nowhere has that been more evident than the handwringing over President Obama’s assumed irrelevance when House Democrats handed him a “humiliating” defeat on TPA a couple of weeks ago. We all know how that one turned out. Just as the House and Senate re-grouped to pass TPA, the events in Charleston, SC were unfolding and the Supreme Court was preparing to hand down rulings affirming Obamacare, marriage equality and disparate impact. As Michael Cohen wrote, we’ve recently been witness to ten days that turned America Into a better place. From an affirmation of his policies to his Amazing Grace eulogy, President Obama has been front and center on it all.
But big events can help or hurt a presidency. The lesson we should all learn from their recent trajectory is that things can change in a heartbeat. President Obama still has a year and a half to go. There are a few things we know are coming up, like whether or not he is able to work with Iran and P5+1 to reach a deal on nuclear weapons. This December we’ll learn whether or not the agreements the Obama administration has crafted with countries like China, India and now Brazil will lead to an international agreement on climate change at the UN Conference in Paris. Both of those would be historic achievements. And then, of course, there are the unknown events that could be on the horizon.
This may very well be the first time in the modern era that a sitting president has as much influence on a presidential campaign as any of the candidates who are running for office. The increasing size of the clown car on the Republican side means that it might be months before any one candidate is able to break through all the noise. That leaves the stage pretty wide open for a Democratic message. And Hillary Clinton has wisely chosen to run with President Obama and his record rather than against it. That means she’s looking pretty good right about now.
Whatever happens, this will be one for the history books as lame duckness is tossed aside and President Obama plays through to the end of the fourth quarter.