Obama's Second Term Could Be Marked by Continued Gridlock and Polarization

Barack Obama's supporters understandably feel uplifted by his reelection. Chants of "Four more years" have been matched by the hope that Obama will finally be able to complete his agenda during his second term. In reality, the public reelected Obama without giving him the clear means to do so. The Republicans still control the House. The Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate, albeit nowhere close to the 60-vote super-majority needed to defeat a filibuster.

That is a sharply different situation from Obama's 2008 election, when the electorate gave the Democrats a significant majority in the House and a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Obama then had the means to notably enact his economic stimulus and health care reform. The situation had largely changed by the 2010 midterm election, when the Republicans regained the House and the Democrats lost several Senate seats, partly due to the surge of the Tea Party and concern over the sluggish economy. The G.O.P. intensified its obstructionist tactics in an effort to categorically block Obama's policy proposals, such as his jobs bill. In particular, Republican use of the filibuster reached record levels during Obama's presidency.

It is notoriously difficult to predict political events, although there is now little evidence to believe that the hard-liners who have increasingly taken hold of the Republican Party for the past three decades will somehow become more moderate. Obama's second term could well reinforce their conviction that he is a radical "socialist" bent on leading America to the brink of chaos.

There are also reasons to believe that many liberals will be just as frustrated by Obama's second term as they were by his first. Disappointment over Obama's inability to do more will probably remain given that he will have to contend with a far more hostile Congress than he did when he entered the White House. Unless Republicans abandon uncompromising obstructionism, Obama will be effectively paralyzed. In other words, there is a distinct possibility that Obama's second term will closely resemble the last two years of bitter gridlock.

Republicans got away with an unprecedented degree of obstructionism during Obama's first term partly because they were quite successful at framing the terms of the political debate. Irrespective of the merits or faults of his policies, Obama seemingly failed to grasp that one can hardly govern without framing the terms of the debate. During much of his time in office, it was not him but the Tea Party that was shaping the direction of the country. For example, Obama failed to emphatically communicate that he gave tax cuts to 95 percent of working families as part of his economic stimulus; and allowed the Republicans to falsely convince a large part of the country that he had radically raised income taxes. In fact, tax levels during the Obama years ranged towards historic lows. "The relation between what is said in the tax debate and what is true about tax policy is often quite tenuous," according to William Gale, co-director of the Tax Policy Center. "The rise of the Tea Party at a time when taxes are literally at their lowest in decades is really hard to understand."

Another key question is what Obama's domestic agenda will be during his second term. He has already enacted health care and financial reforms. Progressives hope that he will now focus on wealth inequality, global warming, or gun control legislation. Yet, again, no such legislation is likely to come to life with a Republican-controlled House and the inability to defeat filibusters in the Senate. Theoretically, the situation could change following the 2014 midterm elections if the public votes in more Democrats. However, midterm elections have historically been marked by a loss of congressional seats by the party holding the White House.

In sum, in a nation that remains heavily polarized, Obama's second term could be marked by the continuation of the exceptionally bitter gridlock that marked his first term.