The President Obama who will be publicly inaugurated to a second term Monday is a very different political man than he was four years ago. He is harder and harder-edged, both more confident in what he can do and more aware of what he can’t. He remains a political pragmatist, but a far more wary one. He is older and, it would seem — politically, at least — wiser.
Put simply: Obama seems to have learned the right lessons from what was by any measure a surprisingly rocky first term in office. Below are the three main lessons that the past four years taught him and how they inform the man who will take the inauguration stage Monday.
● Stop negotiating with yourself. One of the defining characteristics of Obama’s first-term legislative agenda was his problematic approach to political negotiations. His strategy was flawed in two ways: (1) He started where he wanted to end up policy-wise, giving him little room to negotiate without giving away things he badly wanted, and (2) his attempt to kick-start stalled talks was to publicly (and privately) negotiate with himself, a move that further weakened his bargaining position.
Although Obama ultimately won big fights with Congress over the economic stimulus plan and health-care legislation, the political pain — both for him and for his party — was significant. And his willingness to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for two years after the 2010 midterm elections was cast by the Democratic base as something close to a total capitulation.
Fast-forward to today. Obama’s unwillingness to back off his campaign pledge of raising taxes on the wealthy delivered him a political victory on the “fiscal cliff.” And his repeated assertion that the debt ceiling couldn’t be used as a bargaining chip for Republicans led the GOP to cave, setting up a vote to extend the nation’s credit limit through April 15.
● Partisanship > personality. When Obama won the presidency in 2008, he clearly believed that he could break the partisan deadlock in Congress solely by force of personality. His life up to that point provided him evidence for that belief — most notably the fact that he had upended former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination (a victory that was close to unimaginable even a year before it happened) and then cruised to a general-election victory to become the first African American president in the country’s history. Not too shabby.
But that seemingly unstoppable force of personality ran head-on into the immovable object of partisanship in the nation’s capital — and the immovable object won. No one, not even a figure who shot into the political stratosphere as quickly as Obama, was able to fundamentally alter the political process by personality alone.
In his first news conference of 2013, Obama acknowledged that reality when asked about whether he socialized enough with Republicans, and particularly with House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio). “When we went out and played golf, we had a great time, but that didn’t get a deal done in 2011,” the president said, adding later: “When I’m over here at the congressional picnic and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family . . . we have a wonderful time, but it doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and . . . blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”
●You can’t control the message. Obama is the first president to govern in the age of social media and one of the first to govern at a time when political cable talk shows are all the rage. The pace at which news travels today would have been unimaginable to, say, George W. Bush when he first came into office — and that was little more than a decade ago.
What the explosion of Twitter as a news — or maybe the news — vehicle and cable television as the place where political stories are made or broken means for a president is that the idea of driving any particular message for a week (or even a day) is a thing of the past. Being president, or serving the president at a senior staff level, means having to be willing to change the plan to adjust to new realities. Given the way news can go viral in minutes, it’s impossible to distinguish a political molehill from a political mountain anymore.
And so you can’t ignore anything — even if you believe it to be beneath contempt — because it can keep churning without you doing a thing. Need proof? How about Obama’s decision to hold a media event in which he showed his birth certificate in an attempt to end chatter that he wasn’t born in the United States? Can you imagine any past president having to do such a thing for a “story” that was driven by a fringe of American politics?
Being flexible and hyper-aware is the name of the game. Messaging in the vortex of social media and cable television isn’t impossible, but it is incredibly difficult.