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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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It's A Trap! 4 Possible Presidential Pitfalls

Feb 26, 2013
Originally published on February 26, 2013 3:41 pm

You are Barack Obama and you find yourself hacking away in the weeds of sequestration — and some frustration. What's going on?

After all, you won a second term as President of the United States. You withstood the hooks and slices of a nasty campaign. Your approval rating is on the rise. Over President's Day weekend you played golf with Tiger Woods. For an American politician, it probably doesn't get any better than this.

So as you negotiate your way through the back nine of your tenure – moving from sequestration to the shaky economy to health care to immigration, gun violence and beyond — what other possible sandtraps should you be wary of?

Some will be unavoidable."Many second term presidents have found their agendas affected by events out of their control," says presidential historian Thomas Schwartz of Vanderbilt University.

More obvious hazards, however, can be foreseen – and avoided. Ennui, for instance. "Boredom is something that can bedevil even the most successful leaders," says California-based career coach Rachelle J. Canter, author of Make the Right Career Move. "People who are energized by doing the seemingly impossible, overcoming enormous odds, or testing themselves against new challenges — which likely defines most presidents, including President Obama — should beware of ... boredom."

So before you get too far into Term Two, maybe you should pause, take a few practice swings, and consider some potential pitfalls:

1) Boredom. Boredom breeds complacency, says Canter. And "complacency is a performance killer. High achievement is stimulated by interest, incentive, excitement." Complacency results in "low or indifferent performance."

2) Overconfidence. "Obama may be buoyed by his polls, which show his public approval rating has inched up since his reelection, his battles with House Republicans over taxes, and his efforts to reduce gun violence since the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.," writes Kathleen Hennessey in the Los Angeles Times. "Still, historians say overconfidence can quickly turn the second-term blessing [the fact that a twice-victorious president no longer has to justify his actions] into the presidential curse." Sometimes, the story points out, this self-satisfaction can lead to hubris and overreaching.

3) Inattentiveness. Second term Presidents "are very focused on their legacy to the country," says Elaine C. Kamarck, Director of the Management and Leadership Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "This is both good and bad. It can mean that they push forward bold and important ideas. It can also mean, however, that they allow themselves to get diverted from the problems the voters thought they were electing them to solve."

In Obama's first term, Kamarck says, the president "took his eye off the ball by thinking that they had done enough for the recession and that they could move on to health care. He has a big second term agenda. But if he underestimates the continuing pain people are feeling from this recession he will lose political capital and put his legacy at risk."

4) Inaction. Dwight Eisenhower, says Schwartz, "was quite active in his first term, ending the Korean War, proposing the interstate highway system, calming the country down from McCarthyism."

But in his second term, Schwartz says, Eisenhower seemed "Inactive" to many political observers "because he didn't panic when the Sputnik craze led people to think we should double our defense spending or plan a huge space program."

Democrats at the time depicted Eisenhower "as an old fogey who liked playing golf and taking naps," Schwartz says. "They really didn't appreciate his style of leadership, and this initially had an effect on the perception of his legacy."

Schwartz adds, "What's interesting is that the Obama people have embraced Eisenhower, in part because he reduced defense spending and seemed to call for a more restrained American presence in the world. But the Eisenhower approach was not something most progressive Democrats of the time would have found appealing."

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