Obama Needs a New Second-Term Approach

A president's re-election unleashes new forces. Friends and foes are more willing to challenge him.

President Barack Obama wasn't in the Christmas spirit during recent discussions with Speaker John Boehner to avoid the fiscal cliff.

According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, when Mr. Boehner asked what he would get for offering $800 billion in new tax revenues, the president responded, "You get nothing," adding, "I get that for free."

One of the speaker's aides, Brett Loper, asked the president's legislative liaison, "Can you get back into the zone of where you were in July 2011?"—when Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner were close to a large deal on revenues, spending and entitlements. The president's man replied, "No, we were probably overextended then, and there's no way we would do it now."

The president is acting as if compromise and concession are signs of weakness, and as if the country welcomes political conflict because through it, he can bend Congress to his will. This is not how Washington works, especially in a president's second term. If Mr. Obama persists in this approach, then his second term—like many of his predecessors'—may be difficult and contentious, only sooner than usual.

A president's re-election unleashes forces both constructive and destructive. Never having to face election again, Mr. Obama has greater freedom to maneuver. But in a second term, Congress asserts itself, the president's party becomes more independent, and many friends and foes become willing to challenge him. Mr. Obama will discover that presidential power and influence in a second term is almost always less than in the first.

Take Dwight D. Eisenhower, re-elected with a landslide 57.4% in 1956. The following year, he passed a civil-rights law but only after being forced to withdraw a tough, comprehensive measure and accept a water-downed version that even Southern segregationists voted for. His initiatives to calm the Middle East drew harsh criticism from leading Democrats. Eisenhower was also bloodied by Republican defections and Democratic opposition in a budget battle unthinkable in his first term. His approval rating dropped to 58% at the end of 1957 from 74% shortly after his second inaugural.

This should serve as a cautionary tale for Mr. Obama, re-elected by a far smaller margin and with an approval rating (57% last week) far below Ike's.

At least Eisenhower had humility and a constrained view of presidential powers and prerogatives. Those are not qualities usually associated with Mr. Obama. As The Weekly Standard's blog observed, in his 1,600-word eulogy for Sen. Daniel Inouye last week, Mr. Obama said "I" 30 times, "my" 21 times and "me" 12 times. Eulogies are generally expected to be more about the deceased than the eulogizer, but not with Mr. Obama, who even described a childhood summer bus trip to Disneyland.

The more Mr. Obama makes everything about him, the more stubborn he's likely to be when flexibility would be better. For example, when his first pick to be secretary of state—Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice—generated serious opposition over her testimony on the assassination of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Mr. Obama was defiant, saying her critics "should go after me." Fortunately for him, Ms. Rice saw the political cost for the president if her nomination proceeded, and she withdrew. Mr. Obama's second choice, Sen. John Kerry, is likely to be easily confirmed.

But would former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican whom the White House is floating for secretary of defense, also win easy confirmation? Not likely. Mr. Hagel is notoriously abrasive, viewed by many in Washington as an opportunist, and is not liked by many former colleagues.

Many of Mr. Hagel's views are out of the mainstream and even to the left of the president's. He opposed sanctions on Iran and Libya. He opposed designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization when their IEDs were killing American troops in Iraq. He supported unconditional dialogue with the terror group Hamas. He also is considered unsupportive of, and even hostile to, Israel.

Some Democrats are clearly concerned. On Sunday, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer pointedly refused to endorse Mr. Hagel on NBC's "Meet The Press." It is hard to imagine a Democratic heavyweight undermining the president so openly in his first term.

Mr. Obama's second term is not fated to fail, but it is likely to be more challenging than his first. Success requires adjustments, including a greater willingness to compromise and to seek common ground with his opposition. Otherwise, the next four years will be more difficult than they have to be.

A version of this article appeared Thursday, December 27, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama Needs a New Second-Term Approach and online at WSJ.com.