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Obama aims for 'powerful' legacy

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

James Polk's vow to serve only one term as president of the United States made him a lame duck from the outset.

Instead of finding that status constricting, Polk used it to set four specific goals to achieve in four years — and he went about doing just that.

At age 49, the youngest president elected up to that time, Polk said he would re-establish the independent Treasury system, reduce tariffs, acquire all or part of the Oregon Territory and acquire California and New Mexico from Mexico as well.

He earned his nickname, “Polk the Mendacious,” for a reason, according to presidential historian Curt Nichols: “He was probably the single most effective one-term president in history ... but he had to promise everyone the stars to land on the moon, and broke a lot of promises to get what he got done.”

Presidents learn pretty quickly that the euphoria of winning re-election is quickly followed by the diminishing power of a lame-duck term — one that can render presidents powerless if they do not have a working relationship with Congress.

On the surface, President Obama's lack of give-and-take with Congress may impact his legacy.

To date, he points to health-care reform as the centerpiece of his accomplishments, as well as the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. But his legacy also carries the weight of a historic deficit, a sluggish economy and a political stalemate that has escalated since the health-care bill was signed into law in 2010.

His attempted “charm offensive” of the past two weeks with both chambers of Congress, Republican and Democrat alike, has only increased the electorate's skepticism (polls show a striking drop in public confidence in him). It makes his forced charm appear to be offensive.

His lack of vigilance in building those relationships — a 2008 campaign promise — from the outset, long before the shine wore off of his power, astonishes Washington insiders.

“This guy should have been better prepared for lame-duck status than anyone yet, given just how unilateral he has been,” said Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University of Ohio.

Beginning with his State of the Union address in January, the president laid out very specific goals in line with his progressive beliefs on gun control, a higher minimum wage, immigration, climate change and stimulus projects to boost the economy.

Those goals cannot be realized without a House controlled by Democrats, so the first legacy he laid out last month was to “campaign to win back the congressional majority” for his party in 2014, accompanied by his highly aggressive political machine, Organizing for Action.

More campaigning is the last thing voters want, however, a sentiment that shows in the polls: Last week's Washington Post-ABC News survey showed a startling drop for the president since his re-election over his custodianship of the economy, and his 18-point advantage over congressional Republicans on the question of whom voters trust more to deal with the economy is now a far more even split — 44 percent to 40 percent, a small edge siding with the president.

Kelley has a theory that Obama is going for a different type of legacy that won't be hindered by congressional fights, disappointed supporters or a sluggish economy: He wants power.

“There are three things a president is so completely aware of — re-election, his legacy and, finally, leaving the office in better shape than he found it,” he said.

Kelley said everyone has failed to notice what the president's ultimate goal is: “Obama plans to increase the powers of the presidency, and what has been the overlooked story of his presidency is that he has done just that.

“Future presidents will be so grateful that Barack Obama was elected president. Can you imagine what would have happened if George W. Bush had assassinated an American citizen?” Kelley said, referring to the president's decision to call down a drone strike on a rogue American terrorist in Yemen — and his unspecified authority to order such an attack on an American citizen on U.S. soil, without the benefit of trial.

In comparison to that, fights with Congress over policy, or closing “The People's House” for political spite, seem much more manageable.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com)

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