When Barack Obama is sworn in again as president later this month, he will join a very exclusive club: the small band of presidents who have been elected to serve two terms in office. Since the 22nd amendment was ratified in 1951, five other men – Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W Bush – have managed this impressive feat.
A second term has traditionally been seen as a passport to greatness, a chance for presidents to shape their legacies at home and abroad. Yet many of Obama’s predecessors have failed to grasp the opportunities afforded them.
Nixon resigned amid the threat of impeachment; Reagan was compromised by an arms-for-hostage scandal that exposed his deficiencies as commander-in-chief; Clinton inflicted humiliation upon himself with an extramarital tryst; and Bush grappled with Hurricane Katrina, a botched Supreme Court nomination and sectarian carnage in Iraq before facing the worst financial meltdown in decades.
These unhappy precedents will loom large over Obama this year, particularly as he confronts a crisis over America’s tax and spending policies that could set the tone for his second term.
Congress belatedly passed a deal resolving the ‘fiscal cliff’, extending tax cuts for those on incomes under $400,000, maintaining unemployment benefits and temporarily delaying reductions in defence spending. However, the piecemeal nature of this agreement leaves important budgetary issues unresolved.
Chief among these is the federal debt ceiling, which lawmakers must lift within a matter of months. Senior Republicans have threatened to seek concessions on entitlement spending in return for increasing the ceiling, something that could trigger another bout of gridlock. The extent of the GOP’s willingness to fight for cuts in welfare will determine just how protracted negotiations become.
Wrangling over fiscal matters may compromise Obama’s legislative ambitions, which include a long-awaited overhaul of America’s immigration system. Congress has a relatively tight window – perhaps 18 months – to push these through before campaigning begins for the 2014 midterms, after which the race to succeed Obama will drain authority from the White House.
Fallout from the Sandy Hook shooting complicates this situation. The president must prepare for a lengthy battle with Republicans in the House and Senate – as well as Democratic lawmakers from states where the right to bear arms is sacrosanct – if he wishes to pass meaningful gun control measures.
Right-wing opposition to Obama’s agenda will also persist beyond Capitol Hill. Republican Governors – some of them with their eyes on 2016 – are challenging key aspects of his healthcare reform, especially the expansion of Medicaid and the creation of insurance exchanges.
At the Supreme Court, conservative justices look set to harry the administration on regulatory issues and may hand the Department of Justice a defeat on the contentious issue of voting rights. The looming judicial battle over same-sex marriage could cause more discomfort for the president, although here the high court is tipped to craft a narrow ruling which avoids inflaming America’s social divisions.
Challenges also abound for the President internationally. The Arab Spring continues to roil US foreign policy, with constitutional turmoil in Egypt, the dissolution of the Assad regime and the consequences of intervention in Libya all major headaches for the Obama administration. Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme remain hamstrung by a lack of boldness on both sides, while prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine look bleaker than ever.
Attempts to re-engage across Asia and the Pacific may bear more fruit, but the US will need to show diplomatic finesse if it is to contain both the belligerent behaviour of its allies in the region and the ambitions of an ever-expanding China.
Amidst all this, managing ties with the United Kingdom could well seem like a cakewalk. Co-operation between the Obama and Cameron administrations will remain strong across a host of areas, although the bond could be tested by the Tory-Lib Dem government’s changing positions on Afghanistan and the European Union. A presidential fundraiser – perhaps Vogue editor Anna Wintour or ex-Obama campaign finance chairman Matthew Barzun – succeeding Louis Susman as Ambassador would not reflect the White House’s disinterest in Britain, but rather a belief relations can flourish without a diplomatic troubleshooter posted in London.