Will a second term ruin Obama?

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“May you live in interesting times,” goes the old Chinese curse. Today’s American version might be “May you return to office for a second term.”

George W. Bush was ruined by his second term, a string of opportunities missed and frustrations compounded. As a person, he might have emerged unscathed. But the judgment on his presidency was harsh and final, and the impact on his party was grievous: just look at the current crop of candidates hoping to challenge Obama.

Bush’s fate is all the sorrier given the rather combative ebullience he displayed at his Second Inaugural. He felt himself imbued with political capital, and he was ready to spend. Spend he did, and then he was spent.

Barack Obama should take notice. He, like Bush, is immensely popular with his base — despite stiffing them shamelessly on several key issues. Like Bush, he presides over a fiercely divided country in uncertain social and economic times.

Most notably of all, he shares with his immediate predecessor — already — a certain odor. It is the smell of promise that is not being fulfilled and never will be. Republican partisans did not at all want this to be true of Bush, and the same is true of Obama’s faithful. But the painful experience of the two Bush administrations has taught the American people the lesson Bush famously mangled: fool me twice, shame on you.

Half of all Americans polled by Gallup and USA Today are ready to pronounce Barack Obama’s first administration a failure.

Only 44 percent in the same poll went so far as to call it a success.

Those are worrisome numbers for Obama’s increasingly paranoid and blinkered campaign team. Considering how spectacularly awful the Republican field has proven itself to be — week by agonizing week, news cycle upon news cycle — it’s astounding that the president’s re-election odds are stuck at only 60% on InTrade.

For many Americans across the political spectrum, Rich Lowry’s claim that Romney doesn’t need to connect with voters to win will seem crassly dismissive. But sometimes life is crassly dismissive. A large percentage of Americans are looking for just about any excuse to vote in somebody else. The logic of anti-incumbency suggests the only thing better than being Not Romney is being Not Obama.

Nevertheless, that’s not the only logic in town. Inertia — the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion — is the momentum of incumbency, and inertia favors the president right now, on the economy, on foreign policy, even on the deficit.

What helps Obama return to office, however, will likely hurt him badly when he gets there. The last time a president won a second term with a smaller share of electoral votes than he had won in his first election was 1916 — and that year, Woodrow Wilson earned a greater slice of the popular vote than he had in 1912. The likeliest outcome in 2012 is that Barack Obama will underperform relative to 2008 on both counts, putting him in a position of weakness without historical precedent in over a hundred years.

It’s a painful predicament: popular and successful enough to return to office, yet too damaged and disaffecting to achieve any true measure of popularity and success once there. Today, Obama’s re-election seems to augur a tidal wave of defeat for Republicans. Instead, it should put the president’s high-water mark behind them, buying the time they desperately need to recuperate and reconfigure their brand.

The risible GOP primary season has led Republicans away from this line of thinking, and the emotional control it encourages. Instead, panic is setting in. On the one hand, conservatives fear that if they fail to make a robust case against the president, the Republican Party will strike voters as a combination Elks Lodge and country club — conventional, stale and irrelevant. On the other hand, party operatives and centrists shudder at the thought of a return to the belligerent social themes of the ’90s — which gained some traction when political correctness first hit the scene, but now leave most voters asking “Where’s the beef?”

Republicans should ease off the neurotic dread in favor of whatever psychological state accompanies a gentleman’s dare. Okay, Mr. President, they ought to say. You want to lead? You delight in applying the power of your office. You want the executive branch more efficiently forceful than ever. Here. Give it your best shot. We’ll see if you’re up to the task, won’t we? Are you ready to take that bet?

Obama knows the best thing he’s got going for him is his mojo. It’s some of the purest and most concentrated mojo Americans have seen in office for a long time. But running on mojo, especially at the cold mountain peaks of human endeavor, is an exhausting, dangerous game. Obama knows how tough his second term could be. If he’s going to stumble at the finish line this year, it’ll be for the same reason he’s stumbled before: a sudden and crippling depletion of mojo. If Republicans challenge him on that level, without descending to the level of weird cheap shots and hoary tropes, they just might get their own groove back.

Call it the “Bring it on” approach to Election 2012 — hat tip to George W. Bush.

James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.

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