Will Obama really ‘break the fever’?

Why more journalists should question the President's second-term claims

With the media focused on the horse race (and Mitt Romney’s ongoing tactical miscues), the claims by President Obama and his allies that his re-election would “break the fever” or pop “the blister” of steadfast GOP opposition in Congress have received relatively little attention. But with the incumbent now a 3:1 favorite in betting and futures markets, his fanciful suggestions that being re-elected will convince Republicans to compromise with him deserve far greater scrutiny.

Back in June, Obama told supporters at a Minneapolis fundraiser that “the fever may break” among Republicans if he wins:

I believe that if we’re successful in this election, when we’re successful in this election, that the fever may break, because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that. My hope, my expectation, is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again.

The President made a similar point in an August interview with Time’s Michael Scherer:

I believe that in a second term, where Mitch McConnell’s imperative of making me a one-term President is no longer relevant, [Republicans] recognize that what the American people are looking for is for us to get things done…

So my expectation is that there will be some popping of the blister after this election, because it will have been such a stark choice.

Since then, the line has been parroted by aides and allies who often repeat it in far more stark terms. For instance, Obama aides told Mark Leibovich of the New York Times Magazine that an Obama victory “will, finally, break the fever.” Per Leibovich:

When I asked Obama’s top aides in Chicago how the president’s re-election would make Congressional Republicans any more likely to work with them, their response was: “Our winning will teach them a lesson. It will make them look at themselves and realize that their positions are untenable. It will, finally, break the fever.”

In reality, while Obama will have increased leverage in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” scenario, there’s little reason to think the upward trend in legislative polarization will relent any time soon, or that Obama can magically change public opinion from the bully pulpit or force Congress to act through outside pressure. Similarly, it’s not clear that a president’s re-election creates especially strong incentives for the opposition party to start compromising. It’s true, for instance, that Bill Clinton cut a budget deal with Republicans in 1997, but he was also impeached in 1998. Similarly, George W. Bush faced far more relentless and effective opposition from Democrats in Congress during his second term than his first. Despite John Kerry’s loss, Democrats killed Bush’s proposal to add private accounts to Social Security in the 109th Congress and subsequently won a landslide victory in the 2006 midterm elections.

For these reasons, conservative commentators tend to view Obama’s “break the fever” claims as almost laughable according to the few articles that have been written to date. Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey of the Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend, for instance, that “Obama’s theory is not one widely held in Washington,” and quoted GOP consultant Rich Galen stating that “If everything is the same, then nothing is going to change.” TPM’s Brian Beutler was more blunt: “Republicans and conservative thought leaders both openly say Democrats are kidding themselves.” (To understand the constraints and opportunities that Obama would face, reporters would do well to read Ryan Lizza’s extensive consideration of scenarios for a second Obama term from The New Yorker.)

What’s so striking about the lack of critical coverage of Obama’s new theory of political change is that he’s raised unrealistic hopes before. His campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination was premised on the unrealistic notion that he could “change politics.” We shouldn’t be surprised that he failed to do so—it was entirely predictable. But why are the media falling for the same trick again?

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.