Skip to main content

Obama can still build 2nd term legacy

By Joseph Nye, Special to CNN
updated 11:15 AM EDT, Tue May 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Joseph Nye: Many presidents lose momentum with second-term scandals
  • So some try foreign policy, where constitution gives more chance to make legacy, he says
  • Nye: Wilson, FDR, others found external events can upend plans for foreign policy legacy
  • Nye: If you're writing off Obama's second term, you're not paying attention to history's lessons

Editor's note: Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard and author of the new book "Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era." In 1993 and 1994, he was chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which coordinates intelligence estimates for the president. In 1994 and 1995, he served as assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs.

(CNN) -- Many a modern president has lost momentum and suffered what are termed "scandals" in his second term. President Barack Obama's current problems are part of that tradition. But with the exception of Richard Nixon, scandals have not proven fatal. Indeed, Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal and Bill Clinton's impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair were far more serious than what we know so far about Obama's involvement in Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service or subpoenas of records of reporters' calls. Yet Reagan and Clinton finished their second terms as popular presidents.

America's founding fathers created a system of government deliberately designed to protect liberties rather than be efficient. They feared giving the chief executive too much power and constrained the president with checks and balances to limit his actions. As one wag put it, the system ensured that King George III could not rule over us, nor for that matter, could anyone else.

One partial exception was foreign policy, where the inherent powers of the commander-in-chief give the president somewhat more constitutional leeway than in domestic policy. According to conventional wisdom, this situation leads lame duck, second-term presidents to turn their attention to foreign policy where they have a better chance of creating a second-term legacy. But it's not that simple.

Much of a president's second term depends upon unpredictable external events. For example, during his first term, Woodrow Wilson made every effort to stay out of World War I, and he won re-election in 1916 on that promise. But within six months, Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and meddling in Mexico led Wilson to send American troops to fight in Europe -- an enormous departure from the U.S. tradition of avoiding conflicts outside the Western Hemisphere.

And after 1938, Franklin Roosevelt decided that Hitler posed a threat to the United States, but he was unable to convince an isolationist American public to enter World War II until the Japanese solved his problem by attacking Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941.

Obama: IRS problem must be fixed
Carney defends Obama on IRS
Rumsfeld: Controversies a perfect storm
Has the press turned on Obama?

Reagan's case is also instructive. His tough rhetoric toward the Soviet Union was the hallmark of his first term, and he won a massive re-election victory in 1984. Yet in 1985, after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Reagan had the intuition and emotional intelligence to recognize at their first summit in Geneva that Gorbachev -- unlike the inept Soviet leaders that preceded him -- was a man with whom he could do business.

The real success of Reagan's foreign policy was not the tough talk, but the ability to cash in on it by reaching deals that were the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Yet ironically, Reagan almost lost his presidency and his place in history because of careless management that allowed his subordinates to transfer arms for hostages in Iran and use the proceeds to violate congressional laws against providing funds to the Contra rebels in Central America.

Obama's first term was marked by the passage of health care legislation -- unpopular with some, but a historic accomplishment that Democratic presidents have sought since the days of Harry Truman. The Democrats' loss of the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections has constrained Obama's ability to advance other transformational efforts on the domestic front, though some believe that, out of self-interest, the Republican Party may still allow bipartisan reform of immigration law during Obama's second term.

The current "scandals" certainly are expensive to Obama in terms of daily distraction and lost political momentum, but if you think you can write off the rest of the Obama presidency, think again. Too often, Washington focuses so myopically on daily political battles that it fails to pay attention to history. The lessons of history tell us: It is too soon to write off Barack Obama.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joseph Nye.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT