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Guest Column

Can Israel Defy a Second Term President?
By Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger
Mar 4, 2014 - 12:07:31 AM

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The assumption that second term US presidents are omnipotent, and therefore can bulldozer their way through anything - including the exertion of insurmountable pressure on Israel - ignores the most fundamental elements of the US political system: limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances and the centrality of the constituent, deliberately designed to avoid an all-powerful Executive.

Second term Presidents may wish -- but are unable - to extricate themselves from the strict constitutional constraints, demonstrated by the power of the US constituency and the co-equal, co-determining Congress, which have been systematically pro-Israel.

The mystique of the Second Term Imperial Presidency tends to smother Israeli policy-makers and public opinion molders, who misunderstand the US political system, which is dramatically different from the Israeli and European systems.

Contrary to conventional misperception, second term presidents reach their peak on inauguration day, as has been documented since George Washington's second term, when the US was on the verge of a civil war. From then forward, most second-term presidents have been burdened by the second term lame-duck slump.

One of the causes of the inherently weaker second term is the different political life expectancy of House Members (unlimited two-year terms), Senators (unlimited six- year terms) and presidents (limited two four-year terms). Therefore, second term presidents are handicapped by a pressing timetable, pursue relatively quick results/solutions and are anxious to establish (overly) ambitious legacies. On the other hand, the legislators who benefit from long-term continuity, attempt to minimize swift action, which might upset their constituents, thus jeopardizing their re-election prospects. Legislators are more loyal to district and state constituents than they are to presidents. Consequently, they rarely sacrifice their political lives on the altar of a presidential vision.

Term-limited presidents fade away gradually. Their power to reward allies and punish adversaries -- in Congress -- diminishes every day.

Thus, all post WW2 second term presidents have performed less effectively than during their first term, primarily due to erosion of congressional support, including their own party legislators. For instance, according to the Congressional Quarterly (January 3, 1998), Eisenhower's initiatives were supported by 89% of congressional votes during his first year in office; but only by 52% and 65% during his last two years. Nixon enjoyed 74% support during his first year, compared with 60% before resigning to avoid impeachment. Reagan benefitted from 82% congressional support during his first year, plummeting to 47% during the last year of his second term. And, Clinton surged to 86% in 1993, but collapsed to 54% in 1997.

The second term decline is also triggered by unpredictable local and global military and economic crises, worn out senior advisors to the president, an overly-ambitious presidential agenda, presidential arrogance and scandals (e.g., Clinton's Monica Lewisnky, Reagan's Irangate, Nixon's Watergate, etc.) , which are more likely to gain critical mass during a second term.

This second term decline is exacerbated by the outcome of the six year mid-term ("itch") election, which has dealt a blow to all recent presidents, other than Clinton. If the November 2014 "itch" election were held today, the Republicans could gain control of the Senate, in addition to their current majority in the House, paralyzing Obama's presidency.

President Obama may already experience the second term slump, as evidenced by the downturn of his popularity (trending towards 40%), and caused by ObamaCare, the murder of Americans in Benghazi, the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS, the seizure of Associated Press' telephone records by the Justice Department, the NSA's over-reaching surveillance programs, etc.

Is Obama following in the footsteps of President George W. Bush, whose ability to preside was decimated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the handling of Hurricane Katrina, the failure of Social Security reforms and the 2008 economic meltdown?

When smothered by the aforementioned lethal sandstorms, President Obama cannot afford, and is unable, to be preoccupied with effectively pressuring Israel, which is overwhelmingly supported by the American people and Congress in rare bipartisan fashion.

Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger
The Ettinger Report
"Second Thought: A US-Israel Initiative"
First published in "Israel Hayom" newsletter, "Israel Hayom", February 28, 2014

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