Other presidents have recovered lost ground late in the game. Even George W. Bush, whose second term was by all accounts disastrous, improved dramatically in foreign policy, cashiering Donald Rumsfeld, taking the car keys away from Dick Cheney, and beginning to belatedly fix his calamitous war in Iraq.
The question today, therefore, isn’t whether Obama will succumb to some mystical tide of history. It’s whether he has learned enough in his first term about the instruments of governing to wield them more effectively. Unfortunately, Obama shows little evidence of having developed an LBJ-style mastery of legislative wheeling and dealing. He still defaults to a highly abstracted rhetoric of reconciliation—it was there again on election night—and yet, in the actual give and take of negotiations, he makes the elementary error of giving away the store before securing concessions. It now seems possible he will endorse a Simpson-Bowles style budget plan—or to permit loophole closures instead of tax hikes on the rich—that would put new burdens on the middle class. Where Congress’s cooperation is needed, Obama will need a larger repertoire of negotiating moves—better cajolery, fiercer tenacity, shrewder tactics.