Being president of the United States is arguably the toughest job in the world. The most obvious evidence of this fact is the steady greying of the men who occupy the office, especially among those who win second terms. But there are other more subtle signs of weariness in a president, several of which President Obama displayed in his Galesburg speech Wednesday.
Re-elected presidents always find it difficult to sustain first-term momentum for their agenda into a second four years. First terms are often capped by bruising re-election campaigns, making it tough to sustain political backing and public interest. Plus, significant turnover in the president's cabinet and among his senior advisors in the first year of a second term can create debilitating continuity of management challenges.
So the tendency is to stick with "what works," which is to say to keep talking about the same issues, programs and policies that prevailed in the first term. Put another way, presidents become prisoners of their own narratives. Thus, Obama's Galesburg address offered no genuinely new ideas, as indeed his advisers warned would be the case beforehand.
One phrase captures the essence of Obama's second term domestic vision, "more of the same:" More stimulus spending, more green energy development boondoggles, more "investments" - i.e. federal spending and regulation - on student loans, mortgage refinance programs and Obamacare, and more tax "reforms" to make the top 1 percent of income earners pay "their fair share." Obama cannot deviate from this programmatic menu because doing so would be an admission of failure, one that is pointedly reflected in the declining number of Americans with jobs or still looking for jobs, the growing Food Stamp recipient rolls and a steady accumulation of evidence that the Obamacare train wreck is gathering speed.
Then there are the scandals. Obama suffered little damage in his first term when the headlines were about Solyndra, Fast and Furious and related matters. But it's different now because of Benghazi, NSA surveillance, and IRS harassment of the president's Tea Party critics. Virtually every president stumbles as a result of scandals, but they often become far more serious matters early in a second term (think Nixon's Watergate, Reagan's Iran-Contra and Clinton's Monica Lewinsky trials, all of which became major disruptions following their re-elections).
Second term scandals may intensify in part because presidents invariably dismiss them as unimportant, just as Obama yesterday referred to his troubles as "phony." But he likely won't be any more convincing with that line than Nixon was in calling Watergate "a second-rate burglary." Similarly, Obama's exasperated "I am here to say this needs to stop" recalled Clinton's finger-wagging order, "I want you to listen to me ... I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky ..."
But a presidential dalliance with an intern is a far cry from using the IRS to silence political opponents or covering up incompetence that killed four brave Americans in Libya, nor is there anything phony about the potential consequences for Obama.