Four years ago, the country was in the depths of an economic recession that brought misery to millions of Americans. And yet, despite the suffering and despair about the economy, Inauguration Day was a day of hope and inspiration that were felt even by many people who did not vote for Obama. It was also a moment of outsized expectations on the part of many Americans and, perhaps, of the president as well.
Today, the sense of economic crisis has passed, though the economy is far from fully healthy. And yet, this Inauguration Day comes at a time when there is far greater realism about whether the president, or perhaps any leader, can truly transcend political divisions and unite the country. The question is whether he can productively manage those divisions to accomplish what needs to be done.
The president officially began his second term Sunday with the events of the past two-and-a-halfmonths fresh in the minds of everyone. They have helped to reshape Obama’s second term and Obama himself.
The shootings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that took the lives of 20 children and six adults shook the country as no such tragedy had done. The killings had a profound effect on Obama and changed his priorities, adding the divisive issue of gun control to an already crowded legislative agenda.
The “fiscal cliff” negotiations demonstrated anew that Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on what both sides say is a central issue for the president’s second term and raised questions about whether anything significant can be accomplished this year.
The failure of the Republicans to win an election that many of them thought they should have won has brought a period of introspection and debate for the party. It also has heightened the prospects for immigration reform. Bungling by House Republicans during the fiscal-cliff talks has forced a reappraisal of their negotiating strategy, which will have an impact on the coming debate over spending and entitlements, though exactly how isn’t yet clear.
What has not changed since November is the reality of the political divisions in the country. Obama did not create partisan polarization; that condition predated his presidency. It greeted him when he arrived in Washington and it continues as he starts his second term.
The story of his first term was his effort first to overcome those divisions with lofty rhetoric about the need for cooperation. Then, in the face of united Republican opposition to his agenda, Obama was forced to come to terms with the fact that he could not change Washington as he had promised.
The way he did that, after the debt-ceiling fight in the summer of 2011, was to go into campaign mode. Winning reelection became his priority, and he was successful. But with the Republican majority in the House reaffirmed by the voters, the election did not significantly resolve many of the differences that were at the heart of the campaign. The president won a mandate, but has been warned by some advisers not to over-interpret its meaning.
Obama begins his second term with higher approval ratings than he has had in years, save for a few spikes because of intervening events. By historical standards, however, his ratings are not as good as some other presidents at the beginning of their second terms.
That, too, reflects the politics of this period in history. From here forward, part of Obama’s legacy will depend on how successful he is at preventing the partisan divisions from dominating his second term.
Since his reelection, Obama has responded to this challenge by adopting a more resolute public posture. He has been more willing to draw bright lines in his negotiations with Republicans — to the delight of many of his fellow Democrats who long have seen him as someone too willing to give ground to the opposition.
He has shown greater impatience and more toughness than in the past. He insisted that tax rates for the wealthy would have to go up, and they did, albeit on fewer wealthy people than he wanted. He said he would not negotiate over raising the debt ceiling, and in the past few days the Republicans yielded on that.
Touched by the tragedy of Newtown, he came forward with a more ambitious package of gun-control measures than many people expected, particularly a call for a renewal of the assault-weapons ban. He will face sizable resistance in Congress, including among some red-state Democrats. But, as with immigration reform, the breadth of the package showed that the president is prepared to take on battles that he avoided during his first four years.
Perhaps most significantly, he now appears to be operating with a clear sense of the coalition that has elected him twice, of who is behind him and who is not and may never be. His first four years showed that there are parts of Red America he can never win over. If his gun-control measures alienate some parts of the country and some voters, they are likely to be popular with the majority coalition that has carried the past two presidential elections for the Democrats.
More than 60 years ago, James H. Rowe Jr., an adviser to then-President Harry S. Truman, wrote a memo to the president outlining options for dealing with a Congress that was newly controlled by Republicans. His main point was one that has not changed in more than half a century and may be even more relevant today than it was when written.
“Presidential leadership, if it means anything, means no more than how to lead the people only as fast as they will follow,” Rowe wrote to Truman. “The history of every administration shows that in the final analysis, a president has but one weapon — public opinion.”
That is an observation that Obama seems more acutely aware of today than at the beginning of his first term. He believes that he has public opinion on his side in some of these new fights and intends to try to use it as leverage to pressure Republicans. He has turned to campaign-style events in recent weeks to push his agenda. He has vowed to spend more time outside of Washington rallying the public.
It is with all that as backdrop that the president will deliver his second inaugural address on Monday. But the country already has gotten a preview of how he plans to approach his final four years in office.