President’s First-term Gamble Will Determine Success of Second Term

One little noticed and quite remarkable aspect of Election 2012 is that Barack Obama won a majority of the popular vote for the second consecutive time. With the exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four-term run in the 1930s and ’40s, it’s the first time the Democrats have won a majority of the presidential vote in back-to-back elections since 1836.

This suggests that the president has a unique opportunity to reshape American politics in a major way. To accomplish that, however, his second term will have to be deemed a success in the court of public opinion. Mandates and lasting change are won by governing, not by campaigning.

But the perceived success or failure of the president’s second term is likely to be determined by choices he made long ago.

In a political sense, his situation is similar to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. During his first term, Bush bet his legacy and the future of his political party on the war in Iraq. His second term was living with the consequences of that decision. If that war had been brought to a quicker and more successful conclusion, the history of the last six years would be much different, and Republicans would be in much better shape.

Early in his first term, Obama bet his legacy and the future of his party on his national health care plan. Despite public opposition, the president chose to have Congress pass the law on a straight party-line vote. What matters now, though, is not how the law was passed but how it will be perceived in the future.

At this point, no one knows what the outcome will be. Most voters (57 percent) have yet to feel any impact from the law because many of the provisions don’t go into effect until 2014. Looking ahead, there are still legal challenges to the law, and there are likely to be ongoing political challenges, as well. From a purely logistical perspective, there is an enormous amount of work to be done to meet the implementation timetable. Complicating the picture, fewer than half the states have agreed to set up the health care exchanges envisioned under the law.

Whatever the outcome, the perceived success or failure of the health care law is likely to have a bigger impact on the future of American governance than Bush’s gamble in Iraq. That’s because the health care law and the entire concept of shifting authority to the federal government represent core beliefs of the Democratic Party. Their ideology is on the line.

Fifty-nine percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion of the federal government. That stands in stark contrast to America’s historic skepticism about powerful central governments. It also stands in stark contrast to the views of other voters. Republicans overwhelmingly have an unfavorable view of the federal government, and the numbers aren’t much stronger among unaffiliated voters.

If the health care law is successfully implemented and working well in 2016, the president may have convinced a majority of Americans that the federal government is the solution and not the problem. If the health care law is perceived as a failure, most Americans are likely to conclude that Bill Clinton had it right when he declared that “the era of big government is over.”

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