There's a fundamental flaw in President Obama's assessment that he would have a lot more room to negotiate with the Russians on missile defense and nuclear policy in a second term than he does now.
Historians and political scientists say he may not have as much latitude as he thinks. Newly re-elected presidents generally enjoy a bit of a honeymoon at the start of a second term, maybe about eight months to a year. But after that, a president's effectiveness dims as members of Congress go their own way and treat him as a lame duck, and as official Washington and other world leaders begin looking ahead to his successor.
In Obama's case, his effectiveness will depend heavily on who controls Congress, which is up for grabs in November. If the Republicans hold onto their current House majority and take over the Senate, it would severely limit Obama's options and perhaps lead to an extended period of stalemate.
Obama created a firestorm earlier this week when he told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that would have "more flexibility" to negotiate after the November election, when the political environment in the United States will be less polarized. (Obama apparently thought his comments were private but they were picked up on an open microphone.) But there is little or no indication that such polarization would cease any time soon.
Another factor in evaluating Obama's assessment is that it's impossible to predict exactly what policies he would adopt in a second term and how the political system would react, scholars say. This idea is at the core of Republican concerns that Obama might have a "hidden agenda" in the future.
Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and diplomacy at Tufts University, points out that the second terms of the last three re-elected presidents—Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush--took different courses than their first terms.
Writing on the Foreign Policy Magazine website, Drezner says, "Recent second-termers have not reverted to their ideological bliss point—if anything, it's been the reverse; they've tacked away from their starting point" as they adjusted to changing circumstances and, in Reagan's case, new opportunities.
Drezner points out that Reagan shifted from attacking the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" to forming a partnership with new Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev and negotiating historic arms-control agreements. Clinton moved to the center, on domestic and foreign affairs, and became more comfortable using force abroad instead of emphasizing multilateralism. Bush became more cautious about using force unilaterally in his second term after ordering the invasion of Iraq without United Nations approval in his first term..
Of course, there also seems to be at least one political, policy, or personal disaster in every second term, partly because presidents and their aides tend to over-reach or make serious errors after they don't have to face the voters anymore. Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal. Clinton had the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Bush had the scandalously weak government response to Hurricane Katrina.