In the euphoric glow that inevitably descends after a hard-won electoral victory, it is very easy to get caught up in the excitement of possibilities. Indeed, the mood of some supporters of U.S. President Barack Obama following his re-election was that happy days are, if not here again, then at least near again: The economy is recovering, and all of the wishes put on hold during the first term, especially once the election campaign was in full swing, could now be put back on track.
As a result, Obama now faces a double dose of temptation. The first is natural to any U.S. president elected for a second term: the desire to shape a lasting legacy, a decisive set of achievements for the history books that will ensure that future historians rank him among the top tier of former chief executives. Yet, every second-term president over the past 30 years -- Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- overestimated the amount of political capital their re-election generated, and each was also distracted by scandals that further limited their freedom of action. Obama has an additional burden: the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 2009. Should he feel the need to retroactively justify his award by taking bold and risky initiatives -- opening direct talks with Iran, for instance, or trying to impose an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement -- the second-term trap could easily be compounded.
The reality is that the United States, while not on a path to rapid decline, is nonetheless in a state of convalescence. It is easy in the first flush of recovery to assume that the weaknesses of the past have been overcome, but the U.S. still has enormous domestic challenges to face. In all likelihood, the fiscal cliff will be averted come January not by a long-term solution, but by a short-term postponement that leaves the underlying issues unaddressed. All of this puts real limits on the political and financial resources a second-term Obama administration will have to underwrite any new bold initiatives.