Electoral College, Election 2012: Can President Obama concentrate on his legacy in his 2nd term?

WASHINGTON-- Presidents are re-elected for a reason: A majority like what a president has already done and want to see it continue.

But can a highly skilled politician, given another four years, float free of partisan squabbling and achieve major policy solutions? In short, can President Barack Obama concentrate on his legacy?

Probably not, says Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"Anything's possible, and no doubt it is an argument he'll use in public and private to downplay political motives. But he's the only one not running," Sabato said of any plan for Obama to try to remain above the fray.

"The vast majority of senators and congressmen who must pass his plans will seek new terms, and they are going to be just as political as ever. Obama has virtually no Republican support in or out of Congress," Sabato said. "There is no incentive for them to work with Obama."

Obama himself acknowledged how hard an assignment he's given himself when he said in his victory speech in Chicago Wednesday morning: "By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won't end all the gridlock, or solve all our problems, or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus, and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward."

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told public television talk-show host Charlie Rose after the results were in that Obama will have "some sort of mandate" after winning more than 300 Electoral College votes, at least "for Obamacare to continue and for Dodd-Frank (financial regulations) not to be undone.

"Other than that, what we have to look for is for him to build a mandate with a relationship with the people," said Goodwin, who has written about Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and FDR. "The most important thing is to learn from what he acknowledges he didn't do as well in his first term. That's when a president can really make a second term work."

Goodwin said Obama needs to get away from the White House, stop using TelePrompTers and hold twice-weekly press conferences to stay immersed in the daily cultural zeitgeist, in a way reminiscent for their times of the approach great second-termers took.

Second terms in the modern era have not been kind to incumbents. Richard Nixon was brought down by Watergate. Ronald Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal. And Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth W. Starr.

James K. Galbraith, who holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. chair in government at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, heard something in Obama's Chicago victory speech Wednesday morning that indicated to him Obama has plans for tackling big issues in his second term.

"What Barack Obama has in mind in his second term wasn't at all obvious until after the election and, if there was a first hint of that, it was certainly (the victory) speech," he said.

"It included a full-throated statement of the importance of climate change, which was certainly not a subject talked about much in the campaign and didn't come up once in the debates," Galbraith noted.

"He tossed in rather forcefully the notion that the election process needs to be fixed, which is clearly the case given the various problems people continue to have which are obviously ginned up by people in an effort to discourage voting."

Resolving either issue would mark his place in history, Galbraith suggested.

Obama concluded the after-midnight speech in Chicago asking Americans to "seize this future together," arguing that "we are not as divided as our politics suggest; we're not as cynical as the pundits believe; we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions." The soaring rhetoric reminded many listeners of the 2008 campaign.

W. Martin Wiseman, a professor of political science at Mississippi State University, said that if the House Republicans continue to stifle his initiatives, Obama "will have the 'bully pulpit' at his disposal to explain to the American people and it will be clear where the obstruction is."

"He doesn't have to be quite as careful," Wiseman added. "The cards are in his hands now ...

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if he doesn't use his re-election and his lack of any necessity of being re-elected again to push some big issues. That's just in his nature," said Wiseman. "The best example is Obamacare."

(Reach Scripps Howard News Service political writer Bartholomew Sullivan at sullivanb@shns.com.)

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