By Walter Shapiro
LIMA, Ohio—Speaking at a rally here last Friday afternoon, Barack Obama stressed his old-shoe familiarity: “After four years as president, you know me.” That’s a standard stump speech line, but the more than 3,000 Democrats in local high-school gym burst into cheers, brimming with confidence that they knew the Real Obama.
But does anyone outside his family and the inner sanctum of the White House staff really know Obama—or have a clear handle on what he would do with a second term? This question is not designed to feed any off-the-wall conspiracy theories about a secret second-term agenda. Rather, it’s designed to underscore the perception that Obama remains more opaque than most presidents.
During his speech in this blue-collar pocket of Ohio, the shirt-sleeved Obama waxed populist as he decried the way that the voices of the American people have “been shut out of our democracy for way too long by the lobbyists and the special interests.”
Referring to this us-versus-them rhetoric after the speech, a reporter friend, traveling with the president’s press corps, said, “That’s the real Obama.” But was it? Or was this just a president in a tight race harking back to the citizens-versus-lobbyists language that propelled him into the White House?
In his speeches, including the one in Lima, Obama talks about his second-term vision as he says, “I want to recruit 100,000 math and science teachers. I want to train two-million Americans at our community colleges.” Obama echoes this theme in a 60-second closing argument commercial heavily broadcast on Ohio television. In the ad, Obama implies that the money could come “from ending the war in Afghanistan so we can do some nation-building here at home.”
But there’s a major roadblock: The odds are very high that the Republicans will retain control of the House, even if Obama is reelected.
If that occurs, the Tea Party naysayers of 2010 almost certainly would feel emboldened by their personal electoral successes—and become even more obstinate in their resistance to new domestic spending. With the “fiscal cliff” end-of-the-year budget negotiations looming, a reelected President Obama will be hard-pressed to maintain even the current levels of educational spending let alone create new programs.
It’s politically telling that the president never mentions health care in his final TV ad and only flicked at the topic in his stump speech in Lima. But with the Democrats likely to hold the Senate, the reelection of Obama would all but guarantee that his signature domestic achievement will be fully implemented. As a result, tens of millions of Americans would never have to agonize about health insurance coverage again.
Reelected presidents, stymied by Congress, often turn their full attention to foreign affairs. While this single-mindedness can lead to unexpected breakthroughs (Richard Nixon and China), often it ends in the kind of frustration that Bill Clinton experienced over his failure to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement at Camp David in the waning days of his presidency.
The most likely flashpoint for the next president (whether Obama or Mitt Romney) is, of course, Iran. All occupants of the Oval Office and all who aspire to that job have unequivocally declared that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable.
But what would that mean, in practice, in an Obama second term? Any temptation to categorize the president as a peacenik has to be squared against Obama’s enormous expansion of drone attacks against suspected terrorists. Even without a hawkish, even by Israeli standards, government in Jerusalem, the precise American response to a nuclear Iran would be hard for foreign-policy experts to game out in advance. For ordinary voters to do so at the frenzied end of a presidential campaign is well nigh impossible.
Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect a president running for reelection to be overly specific about his plans for a second term. Bill Clinton campaigned in 1996 on little more than the vague promise to build “a bridge to the 21st century.” And George W. Bush gave voters—and his fellow Republicans in Congress—little warning in 2004 that he intended to attempt to privatize Social Security in 2005.
Still, if Obama prevails on Tuesday (or survives a long count that stretches into Wednesday and beyond), I would be eager to read what he says in his post-election interviews. After a stealth reelection campaign, that might be the moment when we finally learn if Obama has fresh ideas for curbing the reign of special interest in Washington. Or how the soon-to-be two-term president intends to bridge the inevitably bitter stalemate in Congress.
In the end, it comes down to the elusive qualities of trust and character. Americans have had four years to make their own judgment about President Barack Obama. So, in fact, maybe we do know him as well as we ever will. Not as a friend or (in that awful cliché) a guy to have a beer with. But as a leader, who has sometimes stumbled but has mostly prevailed during four of the most arduous economic years in American history.