In Washington and everywhere else in the nation, everyone is wondering how President Barack Obama will deal with the debt ceiling. But at this point, Obama has to be wondering about his election chances. While some criticize politicians for constantly worrying about their next election, history has proven that the president performs better when he begins to shift his focus from being just a governor to being the "campaigner-in chief."
Since Obama is about a year away from the 2012 election, not only should we expect him to reach a deal with the Republicans on the debt ceiling, but we can also expect him to work closely with congressional Republicans in passing bipartisan legislation because that is what the electorate demands of him.
If Obama was in his second term (and thereby ineligible to run for re-election) or early enough in his first term, he would not have the same incentive to work in some pragmatic way; President Bill Clinton is a great example of this effect. Clinton tried to take the country to the left with new social services initiatives early in his first term, such as the universal health care campaign that was headed by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. However, the 1994 election rebuked his efforts and sent a new Republican-controlled congress to Washington. Clinton knew he had to change the course of his administration since his re-election was only two years away. As a result, he moved to the center and was able to pass major pieces of bi-partisan supported legislation. His efforts to change his management style in the face of an upcoming election made Clinton a more effective president.
Obama understands that the outcome of the debt ceiling negotiations will go a long way in establishing his credibility as an economic leader. He also knows that economic issues will be the paramount issue in the next campaign. This will force him to negotiate more than usual in order to appear as a competent fiscal manager. He knows he has to reach a deal on the debt ceiling or face dire political consequences at the polls.
We should expect Obama to show some real leadership not only over the debt ceiling, but issues that matter to the public, from the wars to the economy, from now until November 2012. This is not to say that term-limited presidents don’t perform as well as non-term limited presidents (though presidents’ approval ratings almost always go down in the second term), but the incentive to please the American people and compromise with political foes in order to achieve reasonable and productive bi-partisan legislation withers away without the prospect of an election on the horizon.
Because elections force presidents to think about the people’s immediate demands, they are required to cooperate with leaders of both parties in a way they are not compelled to do when they do not have to worry about an election. Therefore, the most effective year of Obama’s tenure (whether he is or is not re-elected) should be this next year because there is an election in 2012.
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