McFeatters: Barack Obama's idealism is tempered by his first term

President Barack Obama kisses first lady Michelle Obama President Barack Obama kisses first lady Michelle Obama in the presidential box near the White House as bands march past during the inaugural parade. (Jan. 21, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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President Barack Obama's second inauguration was an anticlimax -- inevitably so after the lofty promises of change and transformation made from the U.S. Capitol steps four years ago.

Then, a happy, even joyous crowd approaching 2 million -- the largest in Washington history -- gathered to hear the inspirational new president with the funny name and the distinction of being America's first black president.

On Monday, a cheerful but much smaller crowd -- officials even revised downward their estimates of attendance to around 500,000 to 700,000 -- gathered on the Mall to witness a public swearing-in that was in itself an anticlimax. Because the constitutionally mandated swearing-in date of Jan. 20 fell on a Sunday, the oath was first administered at the White House with only Obama's immediate family in attendance and Chief Justice John Roberts presiding.

The 2013 Obama is now a battle-scarred chief executive, hardened by the political realities of governance that he was unable to change. If Obama believed then that the logic of his arguments, the depth of his conviction and fervor of his supporters would carry the day, he was quickly and brutally disabused of that notion when congressional Republicans announced that their No. 1 goal was to see that he would not survive politically to see his second inauguration.

Perhaps their impossibly high expectations and his cool, detached manner kept Obama from getting his due, even from his own supporters. As the smoke of political battle clears, his first term emerges as one of significant accomplishment, including: universal health care; a bailout plan that, however imperfect, saved the U.S. auto industry and managed a recession; a sweeping overhaul of financial regulation; extracting us from one war and beginning to extract us from another.

Perhaps the most glaring bit of unfinished business is that of balancing America's books, reconciling generous social promises -- such as care of the sick and aged, and the education of our young -- with our ability to pay for them. The problem is not insoluble, but it will require a generation of political heroes that has yet to emerge.

Inaugurations are not empty ceremonies. They mark over two centuries of a peaceful change of power. If first inaugurations represent soaring, and generally unfulfilled, hopes, second inaugurations mark a momentary cessation of political hostilities.

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The Obamas have a day to enjoy their triumph. Then it is back to the messy, gritty business of politics and a politically difficult agenda of action on immigration reform, climate change, gun violence, gay rights, equal pay for women and, in the broadest terms, making the Declaration of Independence's "most evident of truths" -- that we are created equal -- true for all.

Second terms have their own peculiar dynamics. Four years from now, it would be no small feat if Obama could live up to his 11-year-old daughter Malia's verdict on his swearing-in: "You didn't mess up."

McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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