In the days leading up to President Barack Obama unveiling his gun-violence proposals -- a first chance to signal his intended path forward -- no one was entirely sure what to expect.
Would the characteristically cautious Obama go incremental, putting forth measures intended to have a chance at passing Congress? Or would he go bold? The answer wound up being the latter, with the president making a sweeping call to action on guns -- the broadest proposals in a generation.
Go big or play it safe is a calculus all second-term presidents make when they’re fresh off a re-election, emboldened by the satisfaction that a majority of voters approved enough of their first term to send them back to the White House, yet experienced enough to understand the pitfalls of the legislative fights ahead.
Like many of his predecessors, Obama is exuding a newfound confidence as he begins his second term. His gun-control push, combined with a narrower approach to Afghanistan, contentious national-security nominations, and harder lines in dealing with House Republicans, foreshadows a president -- free from electoral politics -- who appears ready to shed some of the pragmatism that marked his first term. It signals that while he may remain open to deals, Obama likely will feel less inclined to spend significant time pursuing them with an entrenched opposition.
“It makes sense, historically,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian and a NBC News contributor. “There is more of a sense of command. He speaks more confidently. There’s just a difference between becoming president after being a senator for four years and being the most powerful person in the world for four years.”
Barbara Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, agreed.
“He has this kind of calm, self-confidence, cool, to his enemies bordering on an arrogant demeanor, and that may be coming out now,” Perry said. “He seems bolder than coming in.”
Obama's newfound command style is typical for a second-term president, Beschloss said. He pointed to similarities between Obama’s presence now and Bill Clinton in 1997 and George W. Bush in 2005, after both were also re-elected.
“America tends to treat two-term presidents very differently,” Beschloss said. “In terms of body language, this is a different dimension.”
Presidents in their first terms are often self-conscious, he added, about whether they will earn the legitimacy granted in the annals of history to those who win re-election.
“He’s proved that he’s not a historical fluke,” he said of Obama, noting that all presidents wonder if they are just that.
A strong position
Obama is in an especially strong position for a second term, considering that he accomplished a signature legislative achievement -- heath care -- in his first term, Beschloss noted.
“He is less encumbered than many second-term presidents are,” he said.
According to Beschloss, Most presidents hold off on a push for a major legislative achievement until the fifth year, when they believe they will be free of electoral politics. Think John F. Kennedy and civil rights.
“Most presidents I can think of would have waited to do health care in a second term,” Beschloss said, adding that Obama, though, “did the opposite” likely because he realized he might not have the same structural advantages again of large Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.
“That makes this as a second-term president a little different. He’s not girding for that kind of fight.”
Perry also points to the Supreme Court upholding the health-care law as a turning point.
“It had to show the president, ‘I really do get this system,’” she said. “I just don’t think people make enough of that victory.”
Couple that with Obama’s decided victory in November, and “that has to infuse him with confidence,” she added.
Obama will have to make sure the health care law is implemented well, but he can turn his legislative focus to guns and immigration, both areas where they expect Obama will go bold.
Another reason for the shift, Beschloss said, is Obama is no longer in crisis mode the way he was when he came into office in 2009.
“You’re probably getting much more of a view of the true person rather than someone responding to crisis after crisis,” Beschloss said.
Comparing to JFK
Beschloss and Perry see similarities to Kennedy in how Obama has evolved as president. Like Kennedy, Obama was young and a relative political neophyte when he took office. Neither was known for or seemed to enjoy the back slapping or arm twisting seen as necessary for major legislative victories in the way Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton did.
But both learned from mistakes.
“He does seem to have that quality, a JFK quality,” Perry said. “They aren’t natural-born politicians; they have charisma, but aloof. Personality-wise, they’re very similar. He learned from his mistakes, and I think Obama has that capacity, and that is a major skill for a president. You didn’t get to see that in a second term for Kennedy.”
Beschloss added, “You sure want a president with a sharp learning curve. Kennedy’s the best example of that.”
Perry said perhaps Obama deserves the criticism that he’s not sociable or seen as good negotiator. “He may be aloof,” she said. “His personality doesn’t lend to backslapping.”
But structure may matter more. Both Perry and Beschloss believe Obama has taken away from his first term that he doesn't have a good-faith negotiating partner in the GOP and that since it will only continue, as the GOP looks to who can become the next GOP president, Obama won't try as hard to woo Republicans.
“I think, and he has said this, he was optimistic and tried to improve the relationship,” Beschloss said, but now he “feels more chastened, and you can see it in his actions.”
Perry added, “I don’t see us moving much beyond the Mitch McConnell statement from four years ago.”
As Obama was beginning his first term, the Republican Senate leader from Kentucky famously proclaimed, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
“Now the goal of the GOP will be to put a Republican back in the White House after eight years, so anything they can do to short circuit this president’s agenda, they will do,” Perry said. “And that’s not a criticism. That’s just the way the system has operated since we’ve had two parties, since the founders walked out of the signing of the Constitution.”
The question now is “will this newfound confidence get him over that hurdle?” Perry said.
It only makes sense then, they said, that Obama will try and play an “outside game” to try and leverage pressure on Congress.
Clock is ticking
But there remain warning signs for the president. The economy is still in a fragile recovery and many second terms have been marred by scandal or mismanagement (Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, Katrina and Iraq).
There are also the unknowns. Obama had to deal with several unexpected major events in his first term, from the BP oil spill to the Arab Spring to the debt-ceiling crisis.
In addition, for Americans, “familiarity breeds contempt,” Perry notes. Nearly every president since World War II, except Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, has become less popular in their second term.
“Americans grow weary of just about everyone and everything,” Perry said. “We use up politicians and celebrities, and sports figures … It’s an unusual personage who can overcome that handicap, but Obama is one of the few presidents who has the ability to do that.”
She also points out the irony that, like with Reagan and Clinton, “The farther we get away from them [presidents], the more we like them.”
The biggest hurdle, though, in Obama’s second term is there's only so much time to get it all done.
In fact, presidents who win reelection only have about six months before they become a lame duck, Beschloss said. Elected officials start thinking about their own reelections in the midterms. The parties start looking beyond the president to the upcoming open presidential election. It’s something Johnson understood well.
“LBJ said, ‘We’ve got exactly six months,’” Beschloss said of Johnson after winning election in 1965. “Most of what you and I think of as the Great Society passed in the first six months.”
And in Obama’s case, every day spent on fiscal fights with House Republicans is one less day spent on any major initiatives the president wants passed.