Obama faces new challenges, but not ‘curse’

The continued investigation of the killings of U.S. diplomats in Libya last fall, the new controversy around the IRS’ investigation of Tea Party groups, a stalled legislative agenda, criticism of the administration’s policy toward Syria and challenges with implementing his signature health care law have led some to claim President Obama, like his predecessors, is suffering from a “second-term curse.”

He’s really not. That is not to understate the administration’s problems. Obama is struggling to get his legislation through Congress. The headlines in newspapers over the weekend were about Benghazi and the IRS, instead of Obama’s health care speech on Friday. His administration is grappling with how to stop the mass killings in Syria and maintain the president’s credibility, since he has so far not followed through on his threat that the Syrian government’s use of  chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and be met with a response. Gun control legislation, the president’s plan for universal pre-kindergarten education and a so-called grand bargain on the budget deficit don’t look likely to happen anytime soon.

But those challenges are because of a combination of unsurprisingly realities, not some kind of curse. Obama is attending a fundraiser for the Democratic Party on Monday night, because he and his aides know that the biggest barrier to their legislative agenda is not luck or magic, but Republican control of the House. Even after he won reelection in November, Obama only had one likely legislative achievement in a second term (immigration reform, which Republicans want to complete to woo Latino voters). Any president would have struggled to resolve the complicated situation in Syria, which does not have an easy solution. The administration has continually bungled its explanation of what happened in Benghazi, a fault of its own that has been exacerbated by the Republicans’ obsession with the issue.

The curse explanation is natural because most modern presidents have struggled in their second term, from Vietnam under Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton being impeached to George W. Bush leaving office as one of the most unpopular presidents ever after his failed handling of Hurricane Katrina.

But Obama hardly seems likely to be forced out of office, impeached or have the kind of incident like Katrina that eliminates his credibility with members of both parties.

What seems more likely is an extension of 2011 and 2012, when politics and partisanship reigned, and Obama presided over a Washington stuck in a stalemate.

Obama’s second term is looking less and less likely to reproduce the long list of accomplishments of 2009 and 2010. But 2013 could still end with the administration successfully implementing the health care law, forcing Republicans to accept a tax hike on the rich, passing comprehensive immigration reform and moving the political dialogue on gay rights and guns further to the left than it has been in decades.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr