What a second-term Obama can -- and can't -- accomplish

Obama did not need to defend liberalism during this campaign. His second term -- and legacy -- will depend on it

Published November 4, 2012 12:00PM (EST)

No matter which candidate wins on Election Day, both liberalism and conservatism will have lost.  This was supposed to be a moment of choice: Voters would be presented with two contrasting visions of the future and would give one or the other a mandate to move forward.  But somewhere along the way clarity, as it so often does during presidential campaigns, gave way to horse race strategies, and we are left with a mess.

The Republicans, symbolized by Romney’s decision during the debates to offer an echo, bear a major share of the blame for the muddle.  We nonetheless have a fairly good sense that if Romney were to win, and if he were to bring the Senate along with him, he would etch a new sketch and make a sharp turn to the right.  If Obama, by contrast, hammers out an Electoral College victory, we have little idea what he will do.  Because the Republicans opted not to display their conservatism during the election, Obama was under no obligation to defend his liberalism.

This may, for all I know, be exactly what Obama wants: a second term that frees him to secure the bipartisan agreement on the budget that is the one thing that evidently excites him.  But if he were to opt for that course, we can be all but certain that, learning no lessons from defeat, the Republicans once again will spurn his invitation.  It will take more than one presidential election before the Republicans will ever prefer governance to politics.  When a country has only two parties, and one of them is so out of touch with reality, stalemate can only continue.

Given how unlikely it is that Republicans in Congress would ever work with him, a second term presents Obama with an opportunity to explain as well as cajole.  For reasons no one has made understandable, the president, during his first term, made no real effort to sell Obamacare, a piece of legislation likely to go down in history as liberalism’s greatest accomplishment since the Great Society.  Fortunately, John Roberts stepped in and saved the law, no doubt to the administration’s enormous relief.  (Imagine what shape the 2012 campaign would have taken if Roberts voted the other way.)  It is as if Obama believed that Americans, who have been hearing for decades that government does everything wrong, would change their minds and decide it can do right just because it actually had began to do so.  Politics, alas, does not work that way.

Second terms in general offer few opportunities to innovate: Expect the 2016 presidential election to begin in a month of two. Even the president’s power to make appointments, especially those to the U. S. Supreme Court, will become embroiled in the politics of stalemate were he to have a second term.  Whatever agenda Obama were to choose to follow, not much is going to happen.

Why not, then, use the second term to educate, especially since the president is an educator?  Fortunately for the United States, Obamacare represented the last great middle-class entitlement program left over from the New Deal.  For Obama to break our current political logjam, therefore, he need not prepare the public for any major steps forward.  It would be enough for him to burnish his liberal credentials by mobilizing Americans to prevent things from going backward.

Of all the problems we face, Obama can use two to show how things have gotten worse – and how government can prevent them from deteriorating even further.  One is increasing income inequality.  The other is climate change.

Neither of these issues, it is worth pointing out, made much of an appearance during the 2012 campaign.  Both candidates, to be sure, addressed the question of jobs.  They were right to do so: The rate of unemployment has been too high for too long.  But the real economic scandal of the past decade has been a return to levels of inequality that no civilized society should accept.  This is the great moral issue of our day, one, moreover, that has been addressed over the centuries by all our major religious traditions.  (It is also an issue that once motivated conservatives, who worried that such inequality would disrupt the social contract; but those days are long gone.)  Each individual, or so one hopes, has a conscience.  The president can serve as the country’s collective conscience, reminding us of what holds us together as a people.  Elizabeth Warren touched on these themes in Massachusetts.  Obama can do it in Washington.  When it comes to the common good, no one person builds that.  We all do – or we all don’t.

Climate change is also an issue that in an ideal world would transcend liberalism and conservatism, but that in our world has become a liberal issue – and even then only for some liberals.  It offers, I believe, a perfect second-term opportunity.  We are a long way from effective legislation to address it.  Given the power of interest groups in Washington, moreover, any effort to address it would likely be weak and perhaps even counterproductive.  On this issue we need talk as much as, if not more than, action.  The term “bully pulpit” was coined by Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican who loved the environment.  If ever the bully pulpit function of the presidency were useful, it would be to heighten public awareness about what is happening to our atmosphere.

When nothing gets done, a little can go a long way.  Obama will have scant chance of completing a credible legislative agenda in his second term.  He will have a great chance to try to change how we understand the world.  Doing so would be an accomplishment that would put him in the history books and make us proud to be Americans.

By Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. The author and editor of more than twenty books, he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harper’s, and the Atlantic. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

MORE FROM Alan Wolfe