WASHINGTON — It was a moment for Barack Obama to savor.
His second inaugural address over, Obama paused as he strode from the podium last January, turning back for one last glance across the expanse of the National Mall, where a supportive throng stood in the winter chill to witness the launch of his new term.
“I want to take a look, one more time,” Obama said quietly. “I’m not going to see this again.”
There was so much Obama could not — or did not — see then, as he opened his second term with a confident call to arms and an expansive liberal agenda.
He’d never heard of Edward Snowden, who would lay bare the government’s massive surveillance program. Large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria was only a threat. A government shutdown and second debt crisis seemed improbable. His health care law, the signature achievement of his presidency, seemed poised to make the leap from theory to reality.
Obama had campaigned for re-election on the hope that a second term would bring with it a new spirit of compromise after years of partisan rancor on Capitol Hill.
“My expectation is that there will be some popping of the blister after this election, because it will have been such a stark choice,” he’d said.
Instead, great expectations disappeared in fumbles and failures.
Fractured Republicans, tugged to the right by the tea party, swore off compromise. The president’s outreach to Congress was somewhere between lacking and non-existent. Obama’s team dropped the ball on his health care law.
Snowden’s revelations had Democrats and Republicans alike calling for tighter surveillance rules. Foreign leaders were in a huff — Brazil’s president snubbing the offer of a White House state dinner, Germany’s Angela Merkel incensed that her cell phone calls had been intercepted. The president’s misplaced pledge that people who liked their health plans would be able to keep them ran into a harsh reality as millions saw their coverage canceled.
The year ended with a small-bore budget deal that was welcomed as breath of fresh air. White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri called it a year of “fits and starts” for the president — and predicted better days ahead.
Yet Obama’s agenda of gun control, immigration reform, a grand budget bargain and more sits unfulfilled. Obama’s job approval and personal favorability ratings are near the lowest point of his presidency, with increasing numbers of Americans saying they no longer consider him to be honest or trustworthy.
The mantra for the Obama White House has always been to take the long view. Officials scoff at the “who’s up, who’s down” churn of Washington’s chattering class and recall with glee Obama’s ability to rebound from moments in his first term when his presidency was declared in peril.
But as Obama embarked on his second term, some of his closest outside advisers warned him that the next four years would have to be different: He was operating on a shorter leash, and might have just 18 months, perhaps as little as a year, to accomplish big domestic priorities.
All Obama needed to do was look to his predecessors to see how quickly trouble can consume a second term. Richard Nixon resigned. Ronald Reagan got ensnarled in the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky. And George W. Bush lost the public’s trust through his botched handling of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and the unpopular Iraq War.
Obama’s team thought it had a strategy for overcoming the second-term curse. They would make a quick play for stricter gun control measures, then capitalize on the GOP’s post-election anxiety by pressing for an immigration overhaul and floating the possibility of a big budget deal.
Each of those efforts failed and Obama quickly found himself consumed by an unending series of distractions.
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