President Obama has never lacked for confidence, but rarely has that attribute been on display as clearly as on Monday in an inaugural address that underscored the distance he has traveled after four contentious years in office.
This was not the politician who campaigned in 2008 on themes of transcending the divisive politics of the past, though there were ritual calls for the country and its political leaders to seize this moment together. Instead, it was a president who has accepted the reality of those divisions and is determined to prevail on his terms.
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.
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.
The year ahead promises more debates over the size and scope of government, issues that dominated the past two years in Washington. Obama acknowledged the need to deal with spending and the deficit, but he also set out terms for the coming fight over federal entitlements.
During the campaign, Obama talked about the philosophical divide between Republicans and Democrats on these issues, as he condemned the broken politics of Washington. He said the American people could break the tie with the election.
But the election returned a majority of Republicans to the House, and on Monday the president seemed to suggest that there were grounds for compromise. “Progress,” he said, “does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.”
Obama’s second inaugural address also reflected a changing America and the coalition that reelected him to office. The nation’s first African American president leads an ever-more diverse population and a country in which attitudes and mores continue to change, particularly among the youngest segment of society.
The policy agenda he put forth, and the values he enunciated, spoke directly to that coalition. Never before has a president used an inaugural address to speak so openly about the cause of gay rights, linking the 1969 Stonewall uprising that led to the gay rights movement with Selma and civil rights and the 1839 Seneca Falls Convention and women’s rights.
Not all Americans agree with these changes, and as president, Obama must attempt to speak for them and to them. But his remarks Monday suggest that he believes history is on his side on these issues.
The president’s second inaugural address was notable also for what he talked about only in brief. Four years ago, he stood on the Capitol’s West Front with the country facing an economic crisis. Output was falling, the stock market had plunged, many Americans were threatened with housing foreclosures, and unemployment was rising rapidly. He talked about “a sapping of confidence across our land.”
On Monday, he touched only lightly on that crisis and spoke of the economy in positive terms. “An economic recovery has begun,” he said. At a time when jobs remain a top priority for most Americans, he chose neither to highlight that problem nor to offer any new solutions — though, ultimately, he will be judged on his effectiveness in restoring the economy to its full strength.
Opponents will find much to dislike about what Obama said Monday, for this was not a speech aimed at mollifying those who lost the election. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who lost the presidential race four years ago, expressed disappointment that Obama was not more explicit about bringing the two sides together. “I would have liked to have seen more on outreach and working together,” McCain said. But the senator added, “It’s his privilege to say what he wants.”
Obama risks overreaching or over-interpreting his mandate, which can be an affliction of newly reelected presidents. His victory in November was decisive but not overwhelming. Self-confidence can slip over the line to arrogance or hubris. Second terms often disappoint. So there are dangers ahead for the president.
On Monday, he set out his ambitions for a second term in clear language. What follows will define how history judges both those priorities and his ability to turn them into action.