First terms are about justifying your place in office. Second terms are about justifying your place in history.
Remember Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which he eschewed specific plans and policies and instead reminded Americans of their most fundamental aspirations and urged them to turn toward the light of peace, even in the darkness of war. When a president stands on the Capitol steps and takes the oath of office for a second time, he’s thinking less about his next four years and more about his legacy.
And he has plenty of help. In Washington, the period between an election and an inauguration is a fertile time for big, ambitious ideas, reports and essays. Foreign policy wonks are partial to laying out “grand strategies”: sweeping statements of the means through which the United States should achieve its goals in the world. Veterans of the White House efforts to craft a National Security Strategy, as commanded by Congress, typically shake their heads at these lofty pronouncements. But articulating a basic approach to the world can provide a starting point from which to tackle a wide array of challenges. Complete consistency is impossible, but a good grand strategy can increase the coherence of an administration’s decisions.