October 24, 2012I returned from a long trip abroad to find the presidential campaign as I left it: too close to call. But, talking to friends and catching up on my reading, I learned that a lot had happened. Barack Obama came roaring out of the Democratic convention and jumped to a slim but significant lead over a fumbling Mitt Romney. Then he blew it with a disastrous performance in the first debate.
Democrats still feel baffled and frustrated. What happened to the president, who's usually so poised, articulate and vigorous? A phrase I've heard repeatedly is that he looked distracted, as if he was thinking about something else.
My guess is that he was asking himself, "Why do I want this job, anyway?" The thought occurs to every working stiff from time to time, and it must occur even to the leader of the free world, even when he's spent years raising millions to win re-election. If the prospect of a second term gave Obama pause, I can't blame him.
People tell me that while Romney was energetic, Obama looked tired. Again, I'm not surprised. All Romney has to do is campaign. Obama has to run the government, and it can't have escaped his notice that the government doesn't run anymore. If he wins, before he's even inaugurated he will have to face "the fiscal cliff," a crisis that the government – to be exact, Congress – deliberately created for itself.
This is the bitter hangover of the debt ceiling fight of summer 2011. Members of Congress couldn't make the tough decisions on budget cuts and taxes. So they decided to scare themselves into doing their jobs. They imposed a deadline, with such appalling consequences for the economy that they would simply have to agree. The deadline is Jan. 2, and they still haven't agreed. If the lame-duck Congress, in its final days, does manage to make a deal to avoid this self-inflicted wound, the new Congress will face the next debt ceiling fight in February.
So it's easy to see why Obama might have been thinking that being back in Chicago in 2013 wouldn't be all bad. He could picture himself lying in bed in the morning with a cup of coffee, reading about – what else? – President Romney's problems.
They will be legion, many coming from his own party. The primary campaigns made it clear that the most active and passionate elements of the Republican Party wanted anyone but Romney. He's too moderate for them (as he reminded them with his centrist statements during the debate with Obama).
Romney secured the nomination by convincing the party that he had the best chance to beat Obama. Once he has done so (if he does so), many Republicans will figure he has served his purpose and turn to harder-right leaders in Congress, or even Vice-President Paul Ryan. More than most presidents, Romney will have to start running for re-election from the start of his first term.
Obama may also have been distracted, during the debate, by thoughts of the 22nd Amendment. He is, after all, a constitutional lawyer. The Amendment limiting a president to two terms has, arguably, made it impossible for a president to have a successful second term.
At the same moment that he reaches the summit of American politics by being reelected, he becomes a lame duck. Eisenhower was the last to get through a second term without a crippling scandal: Nixon, Watergate; Reagan, Iran-Contra; Clinton, Monica Lewinsky; Bush, the WMDs that weren't. Reagan managed to weather the storm and score a couple of legislative successes, but Clinton became the first president in more than a century to be impeached, and Nixon the first ever to be driven from office.
But the most haunting second term debacle for Obama must be his predecessor's. The Bush administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina came early in his second term, and he never recovered from it. The Iraq war descended into near-disaster, even as the mistakes and lies that led to the war were revealed. What revelations and disasters await in Obama's second term? We don't know, but he probably does.
The president's feeble moment didn't last long, of course. He came back strong the next day, and was, I'm told, appropriately combative in the second debate. Competition is a powerful motivator.
It's also a powerful distraction for the public. It's easy for us to get caught up in the excitement of the neck-and-neck race, and to join in the triumph or despair of our candidate Nov. 6. But we shouldn't kid ourselves. As noisy, contentious and expensive as this campaign has been, it's not going to put the winner in a strong position to deal with the nation's problems.