Second terms are notoriously vexing, and this one could be more so than most. Obama begins his in a position weaker than that of any modern second-term president, especially Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who lost only two states in 1936) and Richard M. Nixon (who lost only one in 1972). Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both increased their margins of victory in their second campaigns.
Indeed, Obama is a member of a rare political species, a re-elected president with less of a mandate the second time around than the first. Of presidents elected since the nationalist period in the early 19th century, when the number of electoral votes fluctuated as the nation grew, Obama and Woodrow Wilson are the only presidents to be in that position.
Obama is pushing against history (and, more important, his own inclinations) in another vital area. The story of America since the election of Franklin Roosevelt is the expansion of the role of the federal government, especially in the economy and in establishing entitlements. Obama almost certainly will have to stand athwart history and halt the expansion of one or more legs of the entitlement stool -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. (A fourth leg is his own health care plan.)
This will please almost no one -- not his own party, where a large faction wants entitlements to be excluded from any debt- and deficit-reduction formula, and not his rivals in the Republican Party, many of whom want to overhaul the programs and place them more on a free-market basis.
This time the middle ground -- fiddling with eligibility ages and moving the balance of the burden more to providers than beneficiaries -- may not be enough. Those sorts of things, which seem palatable to us in December 2012, might have worked had Washington summoned the courage to impose them in 2010. We may look at those two years the way Churchill looked at the period between the ascension of Hitler and the Munich agreement: the years the locusts ate.