Ducking Lame-Duck Status

It’s unusual for a president to admit he has no plan to guide events. Yet it wasn’t entirely surprising to hear President Obama tell reporters, “We don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with Syria. It’s been clear for months that Obama has no guiding framework for his presidency.

“President Obama’s recent speeches and remarks make it obvious that he is not making any serious effort to govern or to drive world events,” writes Republican strategist Ed Rogers in the Washington Post. “Except for covering the basics, he seems to have taken something like an early retirement.”

Reporter A.B. Stoddard of The Hill adds that “the president is giving Americans the sense as he gives up on Congress, he’s kind of giving up on his job. They know he’s bolting from the building to go to Starbucks and Chipotle. He’s getting bored in the cocoon. He’s planning his post-presidency.”

But that’s natural, right? He’s midway through his second term, and his party controls just one house of Congress. History suggests Obama will be sidelined.

Well, not so fast. There have been three other two-term presidencies since 1976, and each featured major successes at or around this point. Consider Ronald Reagan’s historic 1986, when he managed to steer two pieces of controversial legislation through a divided Congress.

Reagan’s party controlled the Senate until the 1986 midterm elections, when Democrats took over. But he never enjoyed a House majority; Speaker Tip O’Neill was one of the most influential people in D.C. throughout Reagan’s first term, and his replacement, Jim Wright, enjoyed a solid Democrat majority in 1986.

Yet Reagan signed two sweeping reform bills that year alone. Journalist Jeffrey Birnbaum called the Tax Reform Act of 1986 “the broadest revision of the federal income tax in history.” Writing in the Washington Post 20 years later, Birnbaum recalled that the act “had lawmakers, lobbyists and journalists in Washington in an uproar for two years. Despite nearly dying several times, the measure eventually passed, producing a simpler code with fewer tax breaks and significantly lower rates. The changes affected every family and business in the nation.” Reagan had long championed tax reform; as a “lame duck” president, he delivered it.

He also signed broad reforms to how our military is organized.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 aimed to reduce rivalry among the armed services. It also reorganized the military chain-of-command, “designating the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the President’s ‘principal military adviser’ and granting the seven combatant commanders responsible for military operations in geographic areas around the world ‘full operational command’ over units assigned to them,” as historian Lee Edwards explained in a recent biography of Barry Goldwater.

Later presidents would look overseas for their biggest sixth-year achievements.

In 1998 President Clinton oversaw a number of small initiatives here at home, moves focusing on schools, midnight basketball games and nursing homes. But his foreign policy presented two major breakthroughs: the Good Friday Peace Accords and the Wye River Middle East Peace Agreement. The Good Friday agreements did the seemingly impossible: Brought calm to embattled Northern Ireland. After decades of fighting, nobody talks about “The Troubles” anymore. The agreements have, largely, held.

Wye was more controversial. Clinton’s White House Web site said it aimed to “strengthen Israeli security, expand the area of Palestinian control in the West Bank, and enhance opportunities for the Israeli and Palestinian people.” Whether it worked is an open question even today. But it was a bold move nonetheless.

Speaking of bold moves, consider the boldest of the George W. Bush administration. It came a bit later in his presidency, at the start of 2007, just after his party had lost control of both houses of Congress. Bush had empaneled an “Iraq Study Group” made up of long-time Washington hands. In December of 2006 it recommended that the U.S. “begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly.”

Instead, Bush decided to empower Gen. David Petraeus and in January of 2007 the U.S. began the “surge.” By the end of the year, Iraq was mostly stable. So much so that Vice President Biden could claim it as “one of the great achievements” of his administration in 2010, even though Biden had opposed the surge when he was in the Senate. The fact that our success in Iraq has been given away in recent years doesn’t change what an accomplishment it was in 2007.

President Obama doesn’t leave office until Jan. 20, 2017. That’s two-and-a-half years from now. He could, like Reagan, work for a simpler tax code. Or, like Bush and Clinton, craft a strategy to deal with foreign problems.

Whether or not he decides to act will be up to him.