Thursday, June 14, 2012

The presidency: take this job and love it

Posted By on 06.14.12 at 04:02 PM

President Obama speaking at a Maryland community college in March
  • borman818
  • President Obama speaking at a Maryland community college in March
With the race for president likely to be close, Barack Obama may be telling himself right now: a little bad luck and I could lose; a lot of bad luck and I could win.

If he prevails in November, he'll earn the right to wrestle further with the ailing economy he inherited, persistent unemployment, rising poverty, and staggering economic inequality. Homeowners are $700 billion underwater. States, counties, and cities are broke, broke, broke. Europe's economy affects ours, so it's lucky everyone over there is doing fine, although Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain are now managed by hedge funds.

Then there's our looming "Taxmageddon." Barring a new agreement this fall between the White House and Congress, trillions in spending cuts and tax increases will go into effect December 31, which would push the nation into a fresh recession in time for the Inauguration Day celebration.

When he's not fretting about the economy, the commander in chief can mull over the massacres in Syria, bombings of Shiites by Sunnis in Iraq, the mounting violence in Afghanistan, the chaotic transition in Libya, the brewing civil war in Yemen, the power struggle in Egypt, uranium enrichment in Iran, North Korea's missile program, the threat of terrorism, Israel's continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip, the escalating tension with Russia, and the rising power of China.

The president enjoys a wearying travel schedule, relentless pressure, searing press criticism, and virtually no privacy. On the plus side, he gets Secret Service protection; on the minus side, he needs it.

It's easy to understand Mitt Romney's motive for running: the annual salary of $400,000 would dramatically boost his net worth of $250 million. Romney also has never held the job, so his lust for it can be attributed to naivete. After almost four years of banging his head against Congress, shouldn't Obama know better?

Immense challenges attract instead of repel the supremely confident, who dream of engineering heroic reversals. Theo Epstein recently told the Boston Globe the "challenge" was "a primary part" of what drew him to become Cubs president last fall. Three months into his first season, the Cubs are looking up at the other 29 major league teams. Epstein could be second-guessing himself, but he probably isn't; at $18.5 million for five years, his annual salary is nearly ten times Obama's, and he doesn't have to get his reforms through Congress.

U.S. presidents have little time to accomplish much in their first term. They spend the initial year and a half learning the ropes and the last year and a half running for reelection. Between those periods, when the president is raring to work with Congress, Congress is busy with its own elections. After the midterms, Congress resumes its constitutional role of extinguishing presidential power. So it isn't all that surprising that Obama hasn't yet fulfilled his promises to end the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest, raise the minimum wage, win a cap-and-trade deal, and close Guantanamo.

Some Obama supporters believe it'll be easier for him to achieve his agenda in his second term, with the experience he's gained and with reelection no longer a distraction. But that's wishful thinking, Ryan Lizza explains in this week's New Yorker.

"Term limits are cruel to Presidents," writes Lizza, the magazine's Washington correspondent. If Obama wins, he'll have "less than eighteen months to pass a second wave of his domestic agenda, which has been stalled since late 2010 and has no chance of moving this year," Lizza says. Midterms once again will shut down Washington policy making in mid-2014. The president's party usually loses seats in those elections, making it even harder for him to fulfill his pledges. Early in 2015, the media will begin paying more attention to the race for the Oval Office and less on its current occupant. Or, as Bill Daley, Obama's chief of staff in 2011, told Lizza: "After 2014, nobody cares what he does."

Second-term presidents inevitably consider their legacy, Lizza notes. Obama's signature achievement could end up being the Affordable Care Act of 2010—but the U.S. Supreme Court may be on the verge of scuttling it. What, then, might Obama focus on in a second term that he'd be remembered for? According to Lizza, who spoke with numerous administration officials for his story, "The President has said that the most important policy he could address in his second term is climate change, one of the few issues that he thinks could fundamentally improve the world decades from now." Plus it's probably easier to improve the world's climate than the one on Capitol Hill.

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