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Obama's second term: What history says to expect

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"You hear people saying [Clinton] squandered his second term," says Greenberg. "He did a lot. Not through legislation. But that's a narrow view of what presidents do." He cites one example: Clinton's executive orders protecting more wilderness areas from development "than any president since Teddy Roosevelt."

"Meanwhile," Greenberg adds, "budget deficits gave way to surpluses, the economy enjoyed its longest continuous expansion [in history], and poverty rates plummeted."

It's important to disentangle ideology from the questions of success and failure. Unlike basketball, in which success means getting the most points, success to a Democrat – like passing health reform – can mean abysmal failure to a Republican, and vice versa.

The two sides disagree not just on worth but facts. Greenberg, not a Reagan admirer, praises Reagan's greatest second-term achievement – his partnership with Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev to peacefully end the cold war.

" 'Star wars' had nothing to do with it," he says, rebutting the idea that Reagan cowed Gorbachev into submission by pushing a strategic defense shield. "Russia couldn't maintain client states. Reagan was not cynical about Gorbachev. His overtures in the second term revived a hopeful spirit."

Sharply disagreeing about the importance of star wars is Clark Judge, a former speechwriter and aide to both Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

"Yes, the Soviets were [getting] weaker and knew it," says Mr. Judge, now managing director of White House Writers Group, a consulting firm. "Star wars figured into this by making a first-strike capacity obsolete." He describes a variety of early Reagan-era moves strengthening NATO. "All contributed to the realization of how tenuous their position was."

Judge also argues forcefully for other Reagan second-term achievements: "tax reform, holding the line on spending, [supporting] a large number of countries to move from despotism to democracy, and fidelity to judicial restraint."

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