Political Notebook

Presidential historians send mixed message to Obama

Some presidential scholars say President Obama, shown in Hawaii Monday, should be bold and ambitious in his second term. Others say the president should be cautious.
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
Some presidential scholars say President Obama, shown in Hawaii Monday, should be bold and ambitious in his second term. Others say the president should be cautious.

WASHINGTON — President Obama approaches his second term confronting tough and shifting challenges that will play big roles in shaping the rest of his presidency and his place in history.

In the coming months, Obama will have to decide where to be ambitious, where to be cautious, and where to buy time.

He draws political strength from his surprisingly easy re-election in a bad economy. It is partly offset, however, by Republicans’ continued control of the House, plus their filibuster powers in the Senate.


Some of the big issues awaiting the president’s decisions are familiar, long-simmering problems. They include immigration and the need for a tenable balance between taxes, spending, and borrowing.

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Another issue, gun control, jumped to the national agenda’s top tier this month following the massacre of children and teachers in a Connecticut school. And the issue of climate change remains unresolved.

Veteran politicians and presidential historians say it is almost impossible for Obama to ‘‘go big’’ on all these issues. Indeed, it might prove difficult to go big on even one. While some counsel caution, others urge the president to be as bold and ambitious as possible.

‘‘Americans are yearning for leadership,’’ said Gil Troy, a presidential scholar at McGill University.

Other presidential historians, however, think Obama is severely constrained by political realities. They say he will have to choose carefully which goals to emphasize.


‘‘I see Obama as almost uniquely handcuffed by circumstances,’’ said John Baick of Western New England University.

The number of big, unresolved problems facing the nation, coupled with a deeply divided public and Congress, he said, leaves Obama with fewer viable options than most presidents have enjoyed.

At best, Baick said, the US government ‘‘is a gigantic cruise liner, and the most he can do is keep us from hitting icebergs.’’

For instance, Baick said, ‘‘if he goes big on gun control, then it’s 1994 all over again.’’

Then-President Bill Clinton pushed an assault weapons ban through the Democratic-led Congress that year, prompting fierce pushback from gun-rights groups.


Clinton later would credit the NRA with shifting the House majority to the GOP for the first time in 40 years. However, other factors — including a House bank scandal — played big roles, too.

Senator charged with DUI had said he doesn’t drink

BOISE, Idaho — When Senator Mike Crapo sponsored a 2010 bill to cut taxes on small beer brewers, he said he did so for reasons that were pro-business, not pro-beer.

A Mormon, the Idaho Republican said at the time that he abstains from alcohol, and he pledged to have a root beer to celebrate if the bill passed.

Crapo’s arrest early Sunday in a Washington, D.C., suburb on suspicion of drunken driving suggests a private life that departed from his public persona as a teetotaling member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. About a quarter of Idaho’s population subscribes to the Mormon faith, which prohibits members from using alcohol, as well as coffee, tea, and tobacco.

In a statement Sunday, Crapo took responsibility and pledged to ensure ‘‘this circumstance is never repeated.’’

Word spread quickly that Crapo was arrested after authorities say he ran a red light and registered a 0.11 percent blood-alcohol level on a breath test in Alexandria, Va., where the legal limit is 0.08.

It took his colleagues in Idaho off guard. State Senator Brent Hill of Rexburg said his son called him with the news Sunday, and his reaction was: ‘‘You must be talking about somebody else.’’

Hill is the Idaho Senate’s top Republican, a position Crapo held while he was a state lawmaker from 1988 to 1992. Like Crapo, Hill is a Mormon.

‘‘Obviously, I think many of us are very disappointed,’’ Hill said.

Nearly 90, Texas’s Hall now oldest to serve in House

DALLAS — When Ralph Hall was elected to the US House in 1980 at the age of 57, he had served in the Navy in World War II, built a successful business career, and served in Texas’s government.

On Christmas Day, the North Texas congressman will become the oldest person to serve in the US House, surpassing the record of North Carolina representative Charles Manly Stedman, who died in office in 1930 at age 89 years, 7 months, and 25 days.

Hall, who turns 90 on May 3, became the oldest House member to cast a vote this year. Those close to the Rockwall Republican say he remains active. Voters reelected him last month to a 17th term.

‘‘I’m just an old guy — lived pretty clean,’’ Hall told the Dallas Morning News. ‘‘I have no ailments. I don’t hurt anywhere. I may run again. I’ll just wait and see.’’