January 21, 2013
President Barack Obama on the fiscal cliff
President Barack Obama (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Late this morning, President Obama will take the oath of office, and give his second inaugural address. White House adviser David Plouffe says that this speech will focus on “common ground” and our “founding principles,” which will be a real departure from Obama’s address four years ago, but also reflect the progress of his first term.

Obama’s campaign for president was so defined by his soaring rhetoric that there was real surprise at his inaugural address, which was smaller and more grounded than what we had heard during the race. Rather than offer a new vision for the country, he detailed its challenges:

Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

Out of this came his agenda for the next four years—comprehensive program that would “lay a new foundation for growth.” In his speech—which resembled a State of the Union in its laundry list of policy initiatives—he told Americans what they should expect from his administration: New roads and infrastructure, new investment in science and technology, new reforms to education, and a plan to improve and provide health care for millions of Americans.

These were ambitious goals, and over the next four years, Obama would make headway on each one. The stimulus package would halt the recession and usher in a sluggish—but stable—recovery. What’s more, it would funnel billions of dollars toward infrastructure, clean energy, and education reform, while also giving tax relief to millions of working Americans.

On health care, the Affordable Care Act would lay the foundation for universal health insurance, providing subsidized coverage for those Americans who don’t have it, and expanding Medicaid to cover the millions who can’t afford to purchase insurance on the private market. Likewise, on financial reform, Dodd-Frank would lay new regulations and task the government with protecting the interests of consumers as well as investors.

With few exceptions, the second inauguration—and the second term—is always less exciting than the first. For Obama, that isn’t a bad thing. His first term was packed with fierce political battles and momentous legislation. There are still areas of action on the table—climate change, immigration reform, and mass unemployment—but the bulk of Obama’s attention will be on implementing the program of the past term. This necessarily requires a different kind of presidency that we’ve seen over the last four years, but it’s also a clear sign that the core promise of the 2008—“change you can believe in”—is being realized.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.