May 25, 2013
When you are in the opposition, presidential terms seem endless. However, when you are a part of the ruling party, the clock starts ticking on Inauguration Day. President Obama’s second term will be especially short for Democrats. The agenda is full of reform proposals dear to the hearts of important Democratic constituencies, but there is little time to push bills through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Thus, the Democratic Party will soon need to face the challenge of finding a new leader that can take the torch in 2016 and build a compelling dream for the party that brought the first African-American to the White House.
Many people believe that power wears leaders out. Presidents age way faster than the average citizen. The constant tension, pressures and political fights take a toll on elected representatives. The US president can certainly be described as the most powerful person on earth, but he probably also has one of the most stressful jobs. Still, if power drains leaders out, the absence of power is even more damaging.
When President Bush was re-elected in late 2004, Democrats were anxious to rebuild for the 2006 midterm. President Bush’s second term was not a day too short for Democrats who were eager to bring an end to the eight-year Republican control of the White House. Similarly, Republicans are now anxious to see the newly re-elected president serve out his term to have a change to retake the White House in 2016. Their anxiety to find a list of strong candidates that can deliver the White House to Republicans will put pressure on Democrats to start doing the same.
Democrats will have little time to enjoy their hard-fought presidential victory. If the transition was especially active given the negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff, the honeymoon period of Obama’s second term will be equally eventful. The president will need to appoint key cabinet posts. The nominations of the new secretaries of State, Treasury, Defence and other Cabinet posts will give Republicans an opportunity to delay the formation of the new administration and place obstacles in front of Obama’s agenda. In fact, the president’s initial intention to appoint Susan Rice as his new Secretary of State met strong Republican opposition and resulted in Obama’s first post-electoral political defeat. Obama’s success in averting the fiscal cliff — and forcing Republicans to acquiesce to tax increases for the very wealthy — was not free of costs for the president. The White House will need to continue negotiating throughout 2013 with Republicans to raise the debt ceiling. Spending cuts were temporarily put off on December 31, but that fight still looms large over the political horizon in Washington. President Obama will not be able to push for any social programme reforms before he settles the issue of spending cuts and raising the debt ceiling. In fact, Republicans seem especially keen on offering Obama deals that delay a permanent agreement on the debt ceiling because they believe that the longer they drag their feet in the negotiations, the less time Obama will have later to advance his priorities.
The 2016 midterm elections will be an opportunity for Republicans to regroup, but it will also be an occasion for the Democratic Party to start thinking more seriously about their future after Obama leaves the White House. Some of the Democratic presidential hopefuls will test the waters by campaigning in support of congressional and gubernatorial candidates and by engaging in fundraising efforts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be on everyone’s radar, but other prominent Democrats will also be testing the waters. Vice-President Joe Biden, former White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are among the early favourites to vie for the Democratic nomination. While the success of President Obama’s second term and his personal popularity will determine Biden’s chances, the future of Clinton, Cuomo, Emanuel and others will depend on the course of political events. If Republicans move further to the right, liberals Warren and Villaraigosa will have an easier time, but if Republicans finally adopt a more centrist and pragmatic strategy, Clinton and Cuomo’s positions will strengthen as the likely Democratic alternatives.
Though Democrats are still enjoying the flavour of their inaugural balls for Obama’s second term, the fact that the president has already moved past the half -point of his eight years in the White House signals that the clock has begun to tick and Democrats must begin preparing for the post-Obama political scene. True, the chances of Democratic success in 2016 depend largely on how successful Obama is in pushing his agenda. As of now, there are good reasons to be more cautious than optimistic. But even if their president does not provide a strong tailwind with his legacy and approval ratings in his second term, Democrats will still want to hold control of the White House after 1916. Increasingly, that thought, even more than the success of Obama’s second term, will be the number one concern among Democrats.