Obama's Second Term Challenge

Getting reelected put Obama in an elite circle of presidents. Governing well enough that a Democrat wins in 2016 will ensure his legacy, but he's got big hurdles to leap.

But any effort to address that matter—to raise the eligibility age for Medicare, for example—raises hackles with many liberal Democrats. Martin and Haberman quote Ohio’s Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, for example, as saying such an approach would be "morally reprehensible."

The Martin-Haberman article explores the underlying split within the party over such issues and speculates on how Obama will seek to maintain party harmony and cohesion in the face of ongoing party divisions. But the big question facing Obama now is not intraparty leadership or even his success or failure in outmaneuvering opposition Republicans, an activity at which he has demonstrated considerable skill.

The big question is performance on such matters as economic growth, jobs, economic stability, soundness in foreign policy, lack of scandal, domestic tranquility, policy innovation and the like. These are the kinds of issues that determine a president’s standing with voters—and in history. He may pull his party together, but if he does so with policy prescriptions that generate problems for the nation, as George W. Bush did in his second term, then his party will be dealt a blow from the electorate at the next election, and his historical reputation will suffer.

And it isn’t likely that Obama’s standing with either voters or historians will be very buoyant if he either refuses or fails to deal effectively with the debt overhang and thus allows the debt to approach that ominous 90 percent of GDP, where it is headed under current policies. Presidents are elected to solve the nation’s most pressing problems—even those that aren’t readily visible on the surface of things; even those that generate strong undercurrents of controversy. And the debt overhang represents the country’s most serious economic threat.

Thus, if Obama wants a second term that places him in the most distinguished circle of presidents—two terms followed by party retention—he will fashion a brand of politics that enables him to deal successfully with the debt overhang.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.