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.

  • Shatner Can't Attend Leonard Nimoy's Funeral
    Shatner Can't Attend Leonard Nimoy's Funeral

    William Shatner has said he feels "really awful" he will be unable to attend Sunday's funeral of fellow Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy, who died on Friday aged 83. The actor, who played Captain Kirk in the cult sci-fi series, said on Saturday he could not make the service because he already had plans to appear at a Red Cross ball in Florida. President Barack Obama also paid warm tribute to the star, who passed away at his Los Angeles home after a battle with lung disease.

  • Chicago nears fiscal free fall with latest downgrade
    Chicago nears fiscal free fall with latest downgrade

    Chicago drew closer to a fiscal free fall on Friday with a rating downgrade from Moody's Investors Service that could trigger the immediate termination of four interest-rate swap agreements, costing the city about $58 million and raising the prospect of more broken swaps contracts.

  • First Photo Of 'Jihadi John' As Adult Revealed
    First Photo Of 'Jihadi John' As Adult Revealed

    The first known photograph has emerged of Mohammed Emwazi - the Islamic State militant known as "Jihadi John" - as an adult. Showing him with a goatee beard and wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap, the image is revealed in student records from his time at the University of Westminster. Sky News can also exclusively reveal details of Emwazi's academic achievements during his stint at the university in London's Cavendish campus, between 2006 and 2009. According to the document, he passed all but two of the modules in his Information Systems with Business Management degree, for which he was awarded a lower second honours (2:2).

  • Explained! Why People Can't Agree on the Color of that Dress
    Explained! Why People Can't Agree on the Color of that Dress

    It started Thursday with a Tumblr post by Swiked. She posted a picture of a two-toned dress. “Guys please help me,” she wrote. “is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking… out.”

  • South Carolina college scrutinized for 'biblical' stance on homosexuality
    South Carolina college scrutinized for 'biblical' stance on homosexuality

    A small, Christian college in South Carolina said on Friday it had not banned gay students or homosexuality from its campus under its controversial new "Statement on Human Sexuality," which calls the practice sinful.

  • Why Justin Trudeau is suddenly the underdog
    Why Justin Trudeau is suddenly the underdog

    Paul Wells on what Harper and Mulcair might have to teach Trudeau

  • Two Held Over Missing Teen Becky Watts
    Two Held Over Missing Teen Becky Watts

    Two people have been arrested in connection with the disappearance of 16-year-old Becky Watts in Bristol, Avon and Somerset Police have said. Announcing the arrests, Detective Superintendent Liz Tunks urged anyone with information relating to Becky's disappearance to come forward. "Whilst the two people are being questioned our search for Becky continues unabated," she said. "The police have told us today that two people have been arrested in connection with the disappearance of Becky," it said.

  • Vatican condemns leaking of documents showing power struggle
    Vatican condemns leaking of documents showing power struggle

    The Vatican on Friday condemned the leaking of documents that according to a media report show a power struggle in the Holy See over economic reforms and excessive expenses by the cardinal charged with carrying them out.

Follow Yahoo! News