We’re in an era of partisan presidencies, in which the personality, preferences, and ultimately goals of the person in the Oval Office aren’t nearly as important as what the party thinks. That means, too, that it’s mostly a waste of time trying to figure out whether the real Mitt Romney is the moderate problem-solver who was governor of Massachusetts or the fire-breathing “severe” conservative we’ve seen on the campaign trail over the last few months. What’s far more important is figuring out what the coalition who nominated him and is trying to elect him really wants, because that’s how he’ll actually govern.This is a key point, and one that we don't hear nearly enough in our political coverage. (Brendan Nyhan also wrote on the subject back in February.) When we hear pundits claim that we don't really know what Obama might do in a second term when he no longer faces reelection, there are two important things we should keep in mind.
First, we already "know" about as much about Obama as we ever will. I put "know" in quotations because a lot of us -- both his supporters and detractors -- firmly believe a lot of things about Obama that go well beyond established fact. But beyond that, there just isn't all that much more to learn about him that isn't already out there. He wrote two autobiographies, his background was meticulously dissected by journalists and his rivals within the Republican and Democratic parties, he's on TV every day, and we've seen the decisions he makes as president for over three years. We have more than enough information on which to evaluate the man.
Second, the same things that have constrained him in his first term would continue to do so in a second. Obama is a creature of his party, subject to institutional constraints. When Democrats held the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, he pushed a solid Democratic agenda, straight out of decades of party platforms. When Republicans controlled part of the Congress, he reined in his agenda and sought to protect that which had passed earlier. There's every reason to believe he'd continue to act the same way in a second term.
But what if the reelection motive is gone? Won't we then see his true self come through? Well, partisan and electoral constraints on a president are never really gone. At the beginning of a second term, he'd be concerned politically about the 2014 midterm elections, trying to build on Democratic seat shares in the Congress or at least mitigate potential losses. And as 2016 comes around, he'll be thinking about cementing his legacy, which comes most easily when one secures the election of an heir who will protect it. All these motivations will keep Obama from going to far to the left (which could damage his party's nominees) or moving too far to the center (which will anger party activists). And if you're thinking that Obama will finally launch his vast socialist takeover in the two months between election day 2016 and the 2017 inauguration, well, get used to disappointment.
The real Obama? You're seeing it every day.