Second-term presidencies are an opportunity for bipartisan compromise. The institutional stars are in alignment to address long-range problems not amenable in other circumstances.
The president is barred from running for a third term and thus does not have to worry about his next campaign. In Congress, members of the president's party, with some reason to fear losses in the off-year election, may be willing to compromise before their bargaining leverage weakens.
Members of the opposition party may be more willing also, since their hopes of getting a new president of their own party have been at least temporarily dashed.
Second-term presidents over the last generation have tried, with varying results, to achieve breakthroughs. Ronald Reagan, after cutting tax rates in his first term, called for further cuts combined with elimination of tax preferences that had encrusted the tax code.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski and Senate Finance Chairman Bob Packwood -- a Democrat and a Republican -- achieved a historic breakthrough with the tax reform legislation of 1986, thanks in part to intensive coaching from Treasury Secretary James Baker.
Bill Clinton, re-elected in no small measure because of his acceptance of Republican welfare reform legislation, negotiated long and hard with Speaker Newt Gingrich. Both men's staffers feared that their discursive principals would give away too much.
But they reached a grand bargain on Medicare and, with help from a gusher of revenue from the tech boom, a pathway to balanced budgets.
Unfortunately, their discussions of Social Security were terminated by the outbreak of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The stars abruptly fell out of alignment.
Most Republicans felt obliged to impeach a president who had lied under oath in a federal court proceeding. Most Democrats felt obliged to defend a president whose misconduct seemed unrelated to his official duties.
George W. Bush also tried for bipartisan reform in his second term. It was obvious then (as it is now) that Social Security was on an unsustainable trajectory. Benefits were set to exceed revenues (as they have) and the onrush of Baby Boom retirees was just ahead.
Bush laid the groundwork by privately negotiating with Democratic lawmakers and with interest groups concerned about the elderly. He had hopes they would come around.