WASHINGTON - As he tucked into a salad and a beef pastry, President Obama looked around the family dining room in the White House and stared into his future.
Gathered with him were several of the nation's leading historians, who reminded him of the sorry litany of second terms -- the cascade of scandal, war, recession, political defeat and other calamities that afflicted past presidents after their re-elections.
For Obama, who will be sworn in for another four years in a quiet ceremony on Sunday and then again in more public fashion on Monday, the lessons were familiar if daunting. Embarking on the next half of his presidency, he and his advisers are developing a second-term strategy intended to avoid the pitfalls of his predecessors with a robust agenda focused on the economy, gun control, immigration and energy.
"We've talked a lot about this," said David Plouffe, the president's senior adviser who is leaving the White House at the end of the week. "We have spent a lot of time trying to figure out both what to pursue but also these issues of making sure you're bringing the same sort of energy and same sort of focus as the first term."
The president's team concluded that it was important to make the most of the first year of his second term and stick to issues he articulated on the campaign trail. But of course, this is not the first re-elected president to think that. Franklin D. Roosevelt found the economy relapsing in his second term and lost a fight to pack the Supreme Court. Richard Nixon was forced to resign by the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan was caught up in the Iran-contra affair. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. George W. Bush was damaged by the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and a financial crash.
At the same time, there were still second-term opportunities. Reagan overhauled the tax code and signed a new arms control treaty with the Soviet Union. Clinton balanced the budget and led the Kosovo war. Bush turned the Iraq war around with a surge of troops and a strategy change and forestalled a new depression in his final weeks in office.
"In general, the historical record is not one of great hope," said historian Robert Dallek. "He's fully aware of the circumstances he confronts, but he's also upbeat about the fact that he won, and won convincingly."
Indeed, the historians were struck by how much Obama had thought about his second term in the context of his predecessors. He was focused particularly on Dwight Eisenhower, another president who ended a war and tried to curb military spending. "His knowledge of what other presidents did in their second terms, what happened in their second terms, it's very impressive," said Robert Caro, the Lyndon B. Johnson biographer.
With the House in Republican hands, Obama has an uphill struggle simply to deal with various spending deadlines, much less advance his agenda. Advisers debate just how much time he has to push through big legislative initiatives before he invariably loses political capital. They noted that Clinton had a year before scandal erupted, while Bush had just seven months before Katrina sapped his public standing.
For now, the path for the next four years is open and he has a chance to shape it. "You don't have anything to run for anymore," Caro said. "You're running for a place in history."