Obama’s first campaign was aspirational, and he came to office believing, or at least hoping, that through force of personality he could gently guide the opposing sides to consensus on issues that had long resisted resolution. Monday’s speech conveyed the ambitions of a president looking at his next four years with a sense of frustration and impatience, and who now believes that a different style of leadership is required.
In his speech, Obama set out his priorities for a second term, goals that will cheer the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and probably alarm many on the right. He challenged Republicans to meet him partway, though not exactly in the middle. If there was an underlying message Monday, it was not “Come, let us reason together.” It was “Follow me.” The question is whether he will be any more successful in his second term than he was in his first.
Pressure on Republicans
There are reasons for the president setting a different tone in his second inaugural than in his first. Two years after he and his party took a beating in the midterm elections, he now holds the strongest hand in Washington. His approval ratings have climbed above 50 percent, while his Republican opponents in Congress remain mired in disapproval ratings almost three times as high as their approval ratings.
Obama once hoped that he could overcome the united opposition of congressional Republicans, whose militant House members set the party’s tone during the battles of the past two years, through negotiation with GOP leaders. Now he is looking to the country to pressure his opponents to compromise in ways that they would not during his first term.
Republicans have already tested the reelected president and discovered the limits of their power. Their decision not to pick a fight — for now — over the debt ceiling signaled their recognition of that reality. It was an acknowledgment that the tactic of opposing Obama at almost every turn may be self-defeating.
Obama appears ready to try to split the Republican coalition by setting pragmatists against ideologues. On Monday, he rebuked those who have been most aggressive in their opposition when he said, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
Republicans will have to choose their battles more carefully, and they may prevail in some cases. Obama knows that he won’t get all he wants, but the balance of power at the start of his second term is far different from what it was 24 months ago.