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.