Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Should Obama be a One-Termer?

Democratic pollsters Douglas Schoen and Pat Caddell have an interesting suggestion for President Obama: he should decline to seek reelection and announce his intent to serve for only one term as President. They reason that this will give him political freedom to oppose entrenched interests and renewed credibility with independents. I disagree that this will help solve major problems.

It is a no-brainer that Democratic interest groups will oppose certain deficit-reduction measures on principle. If that were not enough, they now will have no practical incentive to work with the President. If Obama were running for a second term, he could say in effect “I’m going to do some things you don’t like now, but if you support me, I’ll make sure you get something in return during my second term.” Now, those interest groups will have no chance of future concessions in return for momentary support of the President’s agenda.

Republicans are unlikely to go along either. As an ideological progressive, Obama is likely to offer some tax increases in any scheme to reduce the deficit. Tea partiers who want to extend all Bush tax cuts and even cut taxes further in some ways will not support this. Even if politicians in Washington were willing to go along, base conservatives whom the party needs in 2012 will have trouble swallowing any tax increase. Republicans will oppose Obama’s likely moves on the deficit out of principle and politics.

Moreover, if Obama chooses to step aside in 2012, there will be a divisive Democratic primary that increase the chances of a Republican ultimately winning office. Such a President will be under pressure to push for the repeal of Obamacare and other Democratic initiatives. If Caddell and Schoen support the Democratic agenda of the past two years, they should oppose anything that makes a Republican victory more likely. I think Obama allowing a divisive primary to happen could be one such thing.

In order to really move on the deficit, Obama is going to need people to perceive him to have power and influence. If he is running for reelection, and is seen to have a decent shot of winning, few Democrats will want to oppose him lest they lose out when he wins. If he then provides voters with a reasonable proposal, he can get independents to support it and the odd Republican. He can use the powers of party discipline to get wavering Democrats in line.

Some might say that stepping aside allows Obama to say he was someone who stepped aside for the sake of country and that history will therefore remember him well. I have a feeling though that stepping aside will signal weakness on his part. Voters and historians may perceive that he declined to run because he thought he had no chance of winning a la Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Instead of fighting for his agenda, he got out when things got tough. That might be the verdict history renders.

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