Tough audience indeed.
In a pair of recent outings before collections of general counsels and their outside firms I have had some limited success in coaxing a raised eyebrow here or there. History is helping me: the history of presidential second terms and of Mount Vesuvius.
The long, sad history of presidential second terms is well known. They are usually dreary affairs full of scandal and dashed expectations. President Obama's legislative second half seems doomed already, with gridlock a certainty on everything but immigration unless and until the president leads his party to a highly unlikely set of sweeping wins in the midterms of 2014. Even if the president has a very good "6th year itch" cycle, his party is still unlikely to pick up enough seats to get control of the House or a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. It is far more likely that the average result of such elections --a significant "thumping'" as George W. Bush called his in 2006-- will occur and stalemate will continue through 2016.
In Congress, that is, but not in the agencies. In the vast expanse of the federal bureaucracy, second terms are where second teams breathe a second wind into the aging Administration's political aims.
This is what I told my lawyer colleagues: The start of second terms bring the exit from the Administration of the first team, and not just from the most visible posts, but up and down the agencies' organization charts. General counsels leave for the private sector. Assistant secretaries head home to rekindle careers or political ambitions. New leadership has to be found but the job seekers from outside the Beltway are neither as numerous nor as talented as they were in 2009 (or 2001 or 1993 or 1981.)
So administrations turn to the second team that is already waiting in the wings --the deputy assistant secretaries, the associate general counsels, the special assistant cadres. Younger, eager, experienced and typically very smart, they are willing to step up and step into the vacant jobs. Once there, what do they do in the absence of big legislative battles to win?