President Obama won reelection last night, after a campaign that featured a lot of talk of “Romnesia” and much less discussion of what he’d do in a second term. It gave me a strong sense of deja vu: not for 2008, but for 2004, when President Bush slogged to a similarly narrow, ugly victory by dousing Senator John Kerry in buckets of mud. As the Washington Post‘s Charles Lane mentioned yesterday, President Obama is “the second president in a row to win election as a uniter- and then campaign for reelection by trashing his opponent.”
That parallel may say a lot about what’s ahead. While Obama hasn’t offered much substance on the trail, he did tell the Des Moines Register in an off-the-record interview that he hopes to fashion a big budget deal and push immigration reform. Readers will recall that Bush similarly planned to tackle Social Security reform and immigration reform. The problem: narrow, agenda-free victories don’t produce mandates, educate voters, or intimidate the opposition. They leave the winner ill-equipped to do much of anything, especially when governing a divided nation and when the opposition controls half of Congress.
Even Presidents who’ve won reelection by big margins historically haven’t managed to get much done in their second terms. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton’s second terms were better known for scandal (Watergate, Iran-contra, Lewinsky) than for legislative success. When an incumbent scrapes his way to a second term by savaging his opponent, the odds are that he’ll have trouble doing much besides naming Supreme Court justices and keeping his first term victories from being reversed. And keep in mind that Obama is the first president, ever, to win less support in his reelection bid than he did the first time he won.
I presume Obama will get some kind of kick-the-can taxes-and-spending deal done (there’s not much of an alternative). He and the House R’s may even figure out something on immigration (the GOP will likely want to reset its relationship with Latino voters.) But there are steep odds against much of note getting done before 2015. And, after the 2014 midterms, the President will be a lame duck and speculation will heat up about the impending 2016 face-off--especially given primaries that could feature a star-studded cast of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and more.
After all the huffing and puffing, this turned out to be a status quo election. President Obama won narrowly, Senate Dems held their majority (and may have picked up a seat), and the House Republicans held their solid majority. Nothing much changes. Those edu-advocates who’ve been telling themselves that an Obama win would mean a big infusion of dollars are going to be disappointed-- the size of the deficit, the GOP majority in the House, the need to deal with Pell, the impending costs of the Affordable Care Act, and the rest mean that there won’t be big new dollars for education initiatives, no matter how often the President says nice things about edu-investment and workforce initiatives. (Remember, as I noted last week, on-budget K-12 spending rose in Obama’s first term at the slowest rate it has risen in two decades.)
The next few years may be something of a slog for folks at ED, as they have to do the tedious work of trying to monitor Race to the Top and waiver commitments, while figuring out how to be impactful when they don’t have much new money to spend and when Washington is focused on the fiscal cliff, the expiring Bush tax cuts, the AMT patch, the deficit, implementing the Affordable Care Act, Iran, and the aftermath of Benghazi. And many of those at ED know this. Couple that with the fact that folks are worn out, and you can expect to see a fair bit of turnover in the next few months. Who leaves, who stays, and who moves in will tell us a lot about what kind of role Duncan’s department (you can count on him sticking around) will try to play going forward.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.