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.