If You Think Obama’s First Term Was Bad, Imagine a Second

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Sept. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Ben Feller of the Associated Press asked President Barack Obama a good question recently. If Obama wins re-election, Feller said, Republicans are still likely to have a majority in the House. “How is that any different from what we have now? Why wouldn’t a voter look at that and say that’s a recipe for stalemate? How would you do anything differently?”

Obama responded, “Well, there are a couple things that I think would change. No. 1, the American people will have voted. They will have cast a decisive view on how we should move the country forward, and I would hope that the Republican Party, after a fulsome debate, would say to itself, we need to listen to the American people.”

In another recent interview, Obama likened the Republican opposition to him to a “blister” that will be “popped” by the election (an image for which I will not soon forgive him).

If the president believes anything like this would happen in his second term, he is kidding himself. If Obama wins re-election, the Republican Party will react by moving right, not left. It will become less likely to compromise with Obama, not more.

If Obama wins, he will almost certainly win with a smaller majority of the vote than he got in 2008, in defiance of the usual trend: Incumbents who win re-election usually do better the second time around. Republicans will almost certainly add to their ranks in the Senate, and may take a majority. No way would they see this set of election results as a “decisive” statement of support for Obama’s views.

No Mandate

The kind of campaign Obama is running militates against his credibly claiming a mandate after getting re-elected. He is, for the most part, banking on getting reelected by tearing down Romney rather than attracting voters with his own second-term agenda. Sure, an Obama victory would reasonably be interpreted as a sign that the public isn’t wild about restructuring Medicare the way Republicans want. But Republicans wouldn’t make any serious effort to act on that idea without an ally in the White House anyway. Obama will have fulfilled most of his mandate -- not to “end Medicare as we know it,” not to let a job-outsourcer become president -- the minute he wins. He won’t get extra leverage on live legislative issues before the Congress, because his campaign isn’t even asking the public for it.

Republicans, especially at the grassroots level, would react to Obama’s re-election by assuming that Romney failed because he was too moderate. That’s a very widespread view among Republicans about why Senator John McCain lost in 2008. During the primaries, many of Romney’s opponents argued that he would lose because he would fail to energize conservatives. This interpretation of 2008 is probably wrong, and it will probably be the wrong explanation for a Romney defeat, if it happens. It will nonetheless be an appealing theory for conservatives.

In the same AP interview, Obama suggested that Republicans would feel pressure “to cooperate on a balanced package” on the budget: that is, one with tax increases. Republicans famously failed to react to their drubbing in 2008 -- after which, let’s recall, Time magazine was running cover stories on their impending extinction -- by softening their line on anything. Why would they react that way after an election that goes better for them? Especially when they will be looking forward to the gains that the party out of the White House typically makes in midterm elections.

More Gridlock

The Republicans aren’t going to change. Judging from the interview, neither will the president. He said that after the election he would tell Republicans “you no longer need to be focused on trying to beat me; what you need to be focused on and what you should have been focused on from the start is how do we advance the American economy.” He would reiterate that he has always been open to compromise. And he would “look at how we can work around Congress,” if needed.

In other words, after winning he will lecture Republicans about how their positions are insincere and adopted purely for political reasons; he will insist that his existing positions are already a compromise with them; and he will try to govern unilaterally. These tactics seem unlikely to produce the desired results. Obama has, after all, adopted all of them, and they haven’t worked.

If the public renders a split verdict -- returning Obama to the presidency and giving Republicans more power in Congress -- both parties will insist that it’s the other that needs to “listen to the American people.” The choice before those people is looking more and more like one between Romney and a unified Republican government, or Obama and four more years that look a lot like the last two.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net