A new term, a new Obama
At noon Sunday, after taking a private oath, Barack Obama begins his second term as the most visible public figure in the world. His face has appeared on more than 12,000 national nightly newscasts. Google his name, and up pop 952 million results. His Facebook page has nearly 35 million “likes.” His tweets have 26 million followers, and on election night his electronic utterance — “Four more years” — was the most retweeted of the year. He was Time’s 2012 Person of the Year, and Gallup found him to be the “most admired” man in the world — for the fifth year in a row.
Yet even now, on Day 1,460 of his presidency, the question persists: Who is he, really? There is a common refrain that Obama seems elusive, if not mysterious; less easily categorized and understood than the last Democratic president. Bill Clinton’s traits were so extra-large and variegated, for better and worse, that something in him seemed to connect to almost anybody and anything.
No doubt Obama is a different breed of cat. Aspects of his political personality are less vivid than Clinton’s. But he is not overly elusive. His mystery is hiding in plain sight. There is a pattern to his behavior, just as there was with Clinton. Where Clinton was protean, Obama is more slowly evolving. People tend to forget, or underestimate, that he had scant executive experience before becoming president. Behind his veneer of ultra-cool control he was struggling to figure things out. Now, after four years, his presidential identity has started to approach its full shape, which will become clearer from now to 2016.
It took one of the best days of his political career and the worst day of his presidency, in combination, to push his evolution to another stage. These were his reelection on Nov. 6 and the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., 38 days later. His unlikely rise had been shaped by his study of power, beginning with his days as a community organizer in Chicago, and an uncanny ability to avoid traps that would diminish power. The 2012 election, in essence, was his last trap. But the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School forced him to reconsider the moral balance of what he had done, or failed to do, to reach that point.
If Dec. 14, 2012, was, as he said, his most difficult day in the White House, one unspoken aspect of his despair was a sense of deep remorse that, in the service of political survival, in the pursuit of power, in the obsession with avoiding traps, he had given little more than perfunctory attention to the issue of gun control. In word and deed since then, he has shown more passion and resolve. Perhaps the conscience of his late mother kicked in, her idealism finally overtaking his concern that people like her were too naive. Certainly the empathy of a father with young daughters had a transformative effect.
In any case, he comes to this term in a new place as a man and as a politician, not only forged by the experience of his mistakes but also more integrated in character. His will to survive is less likely to contradict his will to do good. That’s likely to be evident in how he handles his larger agenda. This doesn’t mean that he will suddenly become the schmoozer, glad-handing or cajoling, that so many pundits urge him to be; or that he will abandon his tendency to compromise with his opponents, especially on budget cuts, even to the point occasionally of exasperating some supporters; or that he will immediately pursue every progressive issue (immigration reform, yes; climate change, probably not yet). It does not mean that those who demonize him as somehow apart and alien will suddenly see that his story, and his instincts, are quintessentially American. It does not ensure success, let alone greatness.
But it does mean that he will act as president with more assuredness, delineate with more clarity, and be more willing to show people who he really is or what he has become in his slow evolution. As the nation’s first African American president, he has consistently paid homage to the civil rights heroes who made his ascent possible, especially Martin Luther King Jr., whose holiday will be observed on the same day as Obama takes his public oath. But he has always been very judicious in expressing his blackness as president, rarely going beyond that evening last January when he channeled Al Green crooning, “I — I’m so in love with you . . . ” It is a complicated endeavor that required time and comfort, but he now seems ready, friends and associates say, to show more of that side of his heritage and personality.
As Obama focused on his second inaugural, experts outside the White House who had been solicited for advice reported that he was more buoyant than they had seen before. In one session with presidential historians, he kicked off his shoes — not exactly a wild and crazy guy, but at least relaxed. In looking for presidential analogies, he turned to two of his predecessors for sustenance: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He found some similarities between where the nation is today and where it was when FDR delivered his second inaugural address in 1937, with the nation working its way out of economic distress and a president proclaiming his concern that backward forces would stifle that progress. With Eisenhower, he found some commonalities between the situations he faces now as commander in chief and what Ike dealt with in his first term, both men bringing the country at long last out of unpopular wars — Korea for Ike; Iraq and Afghanistan for Obama — and then trying to reconfigure and downsize the military.
Finding solace and inspiration from the president’s club can take Obama only so far. Now he has another blank slate with four years to write on it — to refine the identity most likely to last for history, beyond the temporal tweets and nightly news.
Read more from David Maraniss’s Political Lives series:
Read more from David Maraniss’s Political Lives series: