Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's diplomacy (two Arab-Israeli disengagement agreements in 18 months, from 1973 to 1974) did occur in the president's second term, but under very strange circumstances. The October 1973 war created the opportunity, and Nixon, weakened by Watergate, wanted to show that American foreign policy was still vibrant and effective.
In 1988, Secretary of State George Shultz pushed a peace initiative during Reagan's second term, but you'd be hard pressed to call it forceful. Shultz did help engineer a late-in-the-game second term recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but only after its leader Yasser Arafat had met U.S. conditions. And Bill Clinton did undertake a serious diplomatic effort in his second term at Camp David, but it certainly wasn't tough and determined, and certainly wasn't designed to squeeze the Israelis. If anything, he pressed the Palestinians, whom he judged to be evasive and withholding.
The fact is, there's just no historical basis to the proposition of an empowered second-term president getting tough on Arab-Israeli peacemaking or pushing the Israelis around. Regional conditions matter far more than those in Washington.
Same old, same old:
Let's assume for the sake of this thought experiment that Obama does decide that nothing is more important to his second term than Israeli-Palestinian peace (a dubious assumption, but I'll humor myself). And let's further stipulate that he's determined to find a way forward. Domestic politics will be the least of the obstacles that stand in his way, truly more a speed bump than a Mount Everest.
A willful president is critical to success. But more important is the situation in the region and the calculations of Arabs and Israelis. Today, three challenges impede a two state solution: an Israeli prime minister who's very far from either Obama's or the Palestinian position on a deal, a divided Palestinian national movement, and the uncertainties of an Arab Spring that will further limit Israel's flexibility. All will still be there in 2013.
And then there's Iran. Assuming we get through the end of this year without an Israeli military strike (a pretty good bet) or a negotiated solution (another safe wager), the nuclear issue will be front and center in January 2013.
The president's effort to buy time and space to allow sanctions and diplomacy to work to preempt a military solution may be a good idea, but it has created a longer-term problem. In shifting from the rhetoric of containment to prevention, Obama has laid the groundwork for making Iran's nuclear program an American problem and maybe paved the way for a military solution too.
With Israel and now America focused so much on the mullahs' putative nuclear capacity, it's hard to see how any Israeli prime minister -- particularly this one -- would make any concessions on peace with the Palestinians until the Iran situation were much clearer. Add to that the southward-bound direction of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship and you have 1,001 reasons to avoid decisions on the Palestinian issue.
What you see is what you get:
I believe Obama really cares about the Israeli-Palestinian issue; I also think he's terribly frustrated by the lack of progress and holds Israel, specifically Netanyahu, primarily responsible. He'd really like to get tough.
At the same time, Obama has proven himself to be a cautious, pragmatic, and deliberate man. Like FDR, he wanted to be a transformative political figure and alter the trajectory of American domestic and foreign policy. But his nature is more the transactor and the dealmaker. That's who he is.
The president isn't a man of any extreme -- the community organizer, campus radical, alien president trope is a bunch of partisan mumbo jumbo. What's important about Obama's storyline is Harvard Law School, the U.S. Senate, two best-selling books, and succeeding in American politics. To do so, let alone become president, he had to be a man of the system.
When it comes to the Arab-Israeli issue, a second term is more likely to see Obama the unchanged, not the unchained. He's plenty frustrated by Netanyahu. But Obama lacks FDR's partisan toughness and fight; public anger doesn't come naturally, nor does going for the jugular. Instead, he's a compromiser always looking for middle ground and balance, even when it seems naive. That's where his vision of the truth (and solutions) lie.