Second-Term Reckonings

A rule of the modern age: all confident, reelected presidents trip up in the second term. LBJ was sunk by Vietnam. Reagan faced Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton had his comeuppance with Monica. George W. Bush was overwhelmed with the Iraqi insurgency and Katrina. And Obama will have his as well, obsequious media or not.

Supposedly fundamental partisan swings of an era usually prove transitory: LBJ’s landside led to Nixon four years later, whose landslide then led to Carter in 1980, whose supposed new politics of humility and apology led to Reagan, whose small government-paradigm shift nonetheless by 1992 gave us Clinton, whose “middle way” after only eight years gave us Bush, whose “compassionate conservative realignment” ended with Obama. And so on until the end of the republic.

Why these second-term reckonings? Partly, presidential hubris leads to a natural correction, as Nemesis kicks in; partly, one can dodge mishaps for four years, but the odds catch up after eight; and partly, the media and voters grow tired of a monotonous presidential voice, appearance, and manner, and want change for the sake of change. To the degree a president walks softly, understands his second-term dilemma, and reaches out, he is less vulnerable.

But Obama either has misread his reelection as a mandate (e.g., Republicans maintained control of the House and the majority of state governorships and legislatures; Obama, unlike most second-term presidents, received fewer votes than in 2008), or he believes that his progressive legacy lies in ramming through change by any means necessary to obtain results that are neither possible through legislative compromise nor supported by majorities of the American people.

Consider the reckoning Obama will soon have in the following areas:


Americans are as outraged over the Newtown shootings as they are baffled by how to stop such mass murders -- given the difficulty of legislating away human evil. They have a vague sense both that someone should not be able to fire off 30 rounds in seconds, and yet that prior assault-weapons bans and comprehensive gun control have not done anything to curtail the incidents of gun violence. The more the Obama legions try to push curtailments of the Second Amendment, the more pushback they will encounter. Voters sense rightly that ultimately Obama is angry not so much at the “clingers” and their guns, but at the Second Amendment itself.

And yet they sense that Obama himself -- and most celebrities -- quite rightly count on the guns of their security guards to protect them from evil.

James Madison did not write that amendment just as a protection for hunters or to ensure home defense, but rather as a warning to an all-powerful federal government not to abuse its mandate, given that the citizenry would be armed and enjoy some parity in weaponry with federal authorities. That is why a militia is expressly mentioned, and why the Third Amendment follows, emphasizing further checks on the ability of the federal government to quarter troops in private homes (made more difficult when, thanks to the Second Amendment, they are armed).

For Obama to win over public opinion following Newtown, he would have to make arguments that strict gun control leads to decreased shootings in places like Chicago, or that a prior assault weapon ban stopped Columbine, or that Connecticut’s strict gun control mitigated the effects of Newtown. The president would also have to explain, if he were to go ahead with executive orders curbing gun access, why not equally so with knives -- which are used in more killings than assault weapons -- or ammonium nitrate fertilizer that can lead to something like Oklahoma City. And he must demonstrate that playing a sick video game for hours in a basement, or being part of a pathological culture that produces schlock like Natural Born Killers, or expanding the First Amendment to such lengths that the violently insane cannot be forcibly hospitalized are minor considerations in comparison to the availability of semi-automatic weapons.