In today’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote a column that is already one of the most e-mailed stories on the website and brought up something really interesting about President Obama’s attitude (or at least focus) in his second term. Really it is the second half of his second term. In these two years, the President is often referred to as a “lame duck” implying the President no longer has the prospect of being reelected (or affecting the mid-term elections) and therefore cannot be “held accountable” by voters.
A President’s behavior in these years can be extremely informative about a President’s character and priorities. In college, I wrote my senior thesis on Presidential motivations when reelection (or any election) is no longer a consideration. Comparing lame duck Presidents brought up two key points. First, Presidents did act with less restraint or at least attempted too in the lame duck years. Second, most Presidents (Reagan and Clinton, specifically) were unable to fully pursue their stated goals because each was constrained by scandal (at worst) and external forces (at best).
Similarly, though occurring after my research, George W. Bush had more of a mixed experience. His lame duck years were quieter probably due to diminished public opinion and the intensity of the “other” 6 years. His last year devoted to the on-coming financial crisis. Put bluntly, there was not much time or opportunity for the boldness or scandal associated with the conventional wisdom of a what lame duck is.
According to Ms. Dowd, President Obama “rewriting” the lame duck years. She writes, “Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to tell colleagues that one is only president from the inauguration to the first midterm. But President Obama is rewriting the book on Oval Office juice.” My initial response was – oh, come on.
Admittedly, I jumped to conclusions.
I was assuming Dowd was giving Obama more credit simply because it’s been so long since we have had a comparable second term (Clinton). Upon 10-seconds of actually thinking about it, it occurred to me that one difference between Reagan, Clinton and Bush is that Obama is largely free from personal or political scandal and unconstrained by international tension (at least at it relates to our homeland). He is free to focus on topics or make comments that in earlier years his political advisors would almost certainly have demanded he steer clear.
What I cannot understand is why? Why can a President only speak his mind and make his supporters (and himself) proud when elections are no longer on the horizon. Some may call it naive, but if President Obama cannot “go Bulworth” as the article suggests, then no one can. The combination of 24/7 news cycle, social media and so-called super political action committees (PACs) has rendered straight-forward, candid thought impossible. Now, I don’t know if those are the three largest culprits but I intend to continue to explore this in coming months.
My take has always been that politics is like any other market. Voters are consumers. Candidates are producers/providers. The candidate with the best product or service at the appropriate price point will win the most voters. Note: this does not always mean the most inexpensive. Seems to me like we (the electorate) are primed for the candidate who speaks – the entire campaign – like its their lame duck years.
Perhaps this is impossible without the essential confidence-building years of actually being President beforehand. President Obama recently sat with Marc Maron for Maron’s WTF podcast. During the hour-long conversation, Obama reflected on how much more confident and precise he is now as compared to his first campaign. So, I’ll admit a candidate running on the Lame Duck strategy without the experience could be seen as reckless or dangerous. See: Trump, Donald.
I’m not advocating the speak-first and think-later strategy of a publicity whore. I’m suggesting candidates must channel creativity, candor and courage in order to get the attention of new markets (see: consumer analogy from earlier). The real progress will be made when we recapture a large market share of the middle. It’s like the real economic recovery. We need to get new consumers/new capital back in the market. Similarly, I have hopes that President Obama’s lame duck years overlapping with the 2016 President election will spark a new attention to the changing social-political landscape. Yeah, I won’t hold my breath.
At the same time, I think Ms. Dowd correctly pointed out that President Obama could still have a dramatic impact on the country and the election if he wants to. According to her column, this is who he is. Based on the past 6 years, I’ll withhold judgment until we have a few more examples. But I’ll definitely be watching. One thing is for sure, President Obama may have the purest form of lame duck politics that we’ve seen in a generation or more.
Thanks for reading.