If Obama wins, will he finally tell us his second-term agenda?

Walter Shapiro's Yahoo! News column examines how character collides with policymaking in Washington and in politics. Shapiro, who just finished covering his ninth presidential campaign, also is writing a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler.

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.

  • Air Canada plane short of runway, hit antenna array before crash: safety board
    Air Canada plane short of runway, hit antenna array before crash: safety board

    An Air Canada plane that crashed at the Halifax airport was about 335 metres short of the runway before it hit an antenna array, which ripped off its main landing gear, the Transportation Safety Board said Sunday. The aircraft also lost one of its two engines and left a trail of debris as it skidded along the asphalt for another 335 metres early Sunday morning before it came to a stop, said Mike Cunningham, the agency's regional manager of air investigations. These things are always very complex," Cunningham told a news conference. Air Canada Flight 624 left Toronto just before 9 p.m. Saturday carrying 133 passengers and five crew members.

  • Crash Captain Screamed 'Open The Damn Door!'
    Crash Captain Screamed 'Open The Damn Door!'

    Andreas Lubitz, 27, apparently locked the captain out of the cabin and deliberately flew the Germanwings jet into a mountain, killing 150 people. He then tries to smash through the heavily reinforced door with an axe, while yelling at a silent Lubitz to "open the damn door". Before leaving the cockpit, the captain is heard telling Lubitz he did not have time to go to the toilet before they left Barcelona for Dusseldorf. Police found medicines for treating psychological conditions during searches at his home in Dusseldorf, according to German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.

  • Woman Who Ate Frogs As A Child Has 10cm Parasite Removed From Head
    Woman Who Ate Frogs As A Child Has 10cm Parasite Removed From Head

    Some kids will put anything in their mouths when they're young, and in a lot of cases, there's no (serious) harm done. Tell that to Yin Men, however - she popped live frogs in her mouth as a youngster, and has paid a bizarre price as an adult.

  • Roger Moore Denies Racism Over Bond Comments
    Roger Moore Denies Racism Over Bond Comments

    James Bond actor Sir Roger Moore has been forced to deny accusations of racism because he said he wanted the next bond to be "English English". Some have interpreted his comments as suggesting that Sir Roger believes that Idris Elba, who has been widely touted as a candidate for the role, should not play the famous spy. Sir Roger said that the accusation of racism may have resulted from the true meaning of his comments being "lost in translation". Soon after his comments started appearing in UK newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Sir Roger tweeted: "An interview I gave to Paris Match implies I said something racist about Idris Elba.

  • Future Shop stores closing, some converting to Best Buys, 1,500 jobs lost
    Future Shop stores closing, some converting to Best Buys, 1,500 jobs lost

    Future Shop stores across Canada are closing effective immediately, resulting in hundreds of full and part-time jobs being lost. Best Buy Canada, a subsidiary of Best Buy Co. Inc. that owns and operates both Best Buy and Future Shop stores, said in a statement Saturday that it will be closing 66 Future Shops for good, while 65 others will be converted into Best Buys. Brandon Buchanan, a former Future Shop employee in Toronto who worked in the mobile audio section in 2012, said he was shocked to hear the stores are closing. Stores in Toronto were locked and covered in paper with signs posted telling customers to shop at nearby Best Buy stores.

  • The incredible true story behind the Toronto mystery tunnel
    The incredible true story behind the Toronto mystery tunnel

    Why Elton McDonald built the Toronto tunnel that captivated the world

  • Ex-girlfriend of Germanwings Flight 4U9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz speaks out
    Ex-girlfriend of Germanwings Flight 4U9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz speaks out

    The co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 who apparently chose to crash the jetliner into a mountain last Tuesday had vowed to "do something" that would make people remember him, his former girlfriend has told a German newspaper. The 26-year-old flight attendant, identified by the tabloid Bild as Mary W., was quoted as saying Andreas Lubitz, 27, had "burnout-syndrome" and she had been worried about his increasingly erratic behaviour.

  • Target speeds up its Canadian exit, plans to wind up all stores by mid-April
    Target speeds up its Canadian exit, plans to wind up all stores by mid-April

    TORONTO - Target Corp. is planning to close all of its Canadian stores even faster than originally planned.

Follow Yahoo! News

Loading...