The ongoing crisis in Russia and Ukraine has, for some, highlighted deficiencies in President Obama’s foreign policy (or lack thereof). Breakout’s Jeff Macke likens it to the widely held belief that President Jimmy Carter was particularly weak when dealing with the Iran hostage crisis. “Apparently we stopped Putin by saying ‘you’re gonna lose all the good will you had with the Olympics,’” Macke contends. “It reminded me very much a Jimmy Carter-esque kind of scolding morality.”
Zach Karabell, head of global strategy at Envestnet and presidential scholar, sees the similarity but likens it more to the collective morass that second term presidents have faced several times over the last 50-plus years. “Most of Reagan’s second term is mired in Iran Contra, most of Clinton’s second term was mired in Monica Lewinsky,” he points out, giving just two of the many examples.
“Structurally we have an issue with second term presidencies...the last second term president that was effectively able to govern, to have an agenda that had legislative meat was Eisenhower and even Eisenhower faced some of the second term blues with a recession midway through his second term.”
Karabell also points to Johnson who had a successful term after his one and only election to office, a sort of “one-and-a-half” term. “Johnson was kind of a legislative savant. He really got congress. Everybody since then were either governors, or in the case of Obama, had no experience.”
With respect to Obama Karabell says look no further than the fact that today, with almost two full years left in office, most, if not all, electoral attention is focused on November’s mid-terms and 2016. To be fair Karabell points out this is not simply a deficiency of President Obama but of Washington as a whole.
Still, Obama’s second term blues are not all of his own making. “Economic cycle trumps a presidency,” Karabell argues. “I think there are forces at work that are much more powerful than the effect of Washington.” Specifically he points to “moving markets, moving companies, moving capital...the rise of information technology, [and] robotics changing the nature of our economy,” all out of a president’s grasp to varying degrees.
So why even pay attention to Washington if these outside factors are the real movers and shakers of our lives?
“Because there’s a cultural sense that this matters greatly...Even if Obama were a much more effective President or Washington was more effective culture...it still wouldn’t change information technology and the ways in which companies are shaping lives.”
And so while President Obama tries to avoid being grouped in with the Carter’s of history and deals with the second term blues, Karabell cautions us not to worry too much either way. Yes it’s true President Obama is “not getting a lot done,” he says, “but he doesn’t have to because the economy is trumping him.”
Merrill Lynch is not responsible for the editorial content of this blog
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- President Jimmy Carter