WASHINGTON As he tucked into a salad and a beef pastry, President Barack Obama looked around the family dining room in the White House and stared into his future. By some forecasts, it may not be a pretty sight.
Gathered with him that evening 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 the heady crescendo of re-election.
For Obama, who will be sworn in for another four years in a quiet ceremony today 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."
After studying the past, the president's team concluded that it was important to make the most of the first year of his second term and stick rigorously to issues he articulated on the campaign trail. "If you stay in that zone," Plouffe said, "I think you avoid a lot of those potential dangers."
But of course, this is not the first re-elected president to think that.
Others arrived at this point with similar confidence, only to be hobbled by developments. Some past second-term troubles stemmed from hubris, exhaustion or miscalculation; others arrived out of the blue.
Franklin Roosevelt found the economy relapsing 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, though not convicted, for lying under oath 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, as the historians made clear to Obama at their dinner this month, 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 successfully 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 Robert Dallek, one of the historians at the dinner. "(Obama's) fully aware of the circumstances he confronts, but he's also upbeat about the fact that he won, and won convincingly. It wasn't a landslide, but it certainly was a convincing victory."
Indeed, during the course of a free-ranging 2 1/2-hour conversation, 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 Johnson biographer.
Obama has made clear in public settings, as well, how attuned he is to the opportunities and challenges confronting him, including history's warning signs.
"I'm more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms," he said shortly after his re-election. "We are very cautious about that. On the other hand, I didn't get re-elected just to bask in re-election. I got elected to do work on behalf of American families and small businesses all across the country."
Obama has the unusual distinction of being the third president in a row to win two terms; the last time that happened was when James Monroe followed Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Monroe, however, was re-elected effectively without opposition and presided over what was called the "era of good feelings." Obama, it seems safe to say, is presiding over the opposite.
With the House in Republican hands, Obama has an uphill struggle simply to deal with various spending deadlines, much less advance an agenda.
Within the White House, 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 Hurricane Katrina sapped his public standing.
"You hope for a year and a half. You understand it could be half that," said Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary who worked on the re-election campaign. "You've got to have a really, really good plan for 12 months in hopes it lasts for 16 or 18. But you have to be mindful that every day the window gets a little narrower and you've got to seize the moment."
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, said Obama would tap public opinion to maintain clout.
"One way of keeping Congress accountable is this constant engagement with the American people, and I know that's something he's committed to doing even more so in a second term," she said.
Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University historian who was at the dinner with Obama, said that the notion of a second-term curse was overstated, but that the president would have to be assertive to remain relevant.
"You have to be willing to be a strong executive-power president in your second term; otherwise you become a lame duck," he said.
Obama's first term was in its own way cursed as much as anyone else's second term, or at least replete with the sorts of crises that would challenge any presidency: the recession, the collapsing auto industry, the biggest offshore oil spill in American history and two wars.
Much of the worst, his advisers hope, may now be behind him.
"The advantage now is he's not facing almost unprecedented economic trouble, which really colored his first year," said Phil Schiliro, his former legislative director. "This is really the first time in his presidency when he's not facing a crisis like that. The wars are winding down, the economy's getting better. That gives him more breathing room."
Some presidential second-term troubles were really manifestations of first-term actions, including the Watergate burglary under Nixon, the secret arms sales to Iran under Reagan, the liaisons by Clinton and the invasion of Iraq by Bush.
While there have been flaps during Obama's first term over investments in a failed clean energy company, a bungled anti-gun operation and the attack in Benghazi, Libya, nothing of historic magnitude is evident at the moment. But Obama's staff worries that the biggest risks would be not effectively implementing the health care program coming into full force in the second term or the economy not bouncing back more strongly by the time he leaves office.
Still, as he prepared to take the oath again, Obama struck the historians as relaxed and engaged, especially compared with their last dinner with him before the election when they sensed the tension that gripped him. 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," said Caro. "You're running for a place in history."