In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. . . . Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. . . . This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
-- Barack Obama
Jan. 20, 2009
That statement about hard work and responsibility from President Barack Obama's first inaugural address four years ago would be fitting again in his second address tomorrow. With concerns about the economy, unemployment and America's future just as pressing today -- if not more so -- the start of his second term is more sobering than celebratory.
The achievements of Obama's first four years were recognized (at least partly) by his re-election; the focus now is on what he can accomplish in the next four years, and how he may establish an enduring legacy in American politics.
Re-election confers legitimacy on many of Obama's first-term policies. The Supreme Court has upheld the 2010 health care law, the executive branch is working on implementation, and legislation introduced into the 113th Congress to repeal the law lacks political support. The economic benefits of the 2009 stimulus package continue to be debated -- much like the debate over the effect of Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cuts continues even today -- but Obama's argument that the financial downturn would have been much worse without the investment of public funds cannot be dismissed.
Obama also made two Supreme Court appointments, withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq, increased U.S. efforts in Afghanistan before developing a withdrawal plan, approved the operation to capture and kill the person responsible for the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks, repealed the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and established a temporary reprieve from deportation for undocumented immigrants who were children when they entered the country.
A second term promises to be at least as active.
Cautionary lessons from the last four years are evident too. Perhaps most significant is the midterm loss of the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Divided government slowed the policy process and ultimately deferred tough economic choices until now, after the presidential election. Obama wasn't on the ballot in 2010, of course, and the rebuke of his party in the House may reflect economic conditions at the time rather than a personal critique. But the loss certainly forced a reassessment of what priorities were most important, and feasible.
Obama ultimately deferred ending the 2001 tax cuts for high-income earners for two more years, despite his 2008 campaign pledge to halt them sooner. The White House and Congress reached a deal to avert the debt crisis in the summer of 2011, but only after much posturing by both sides. Both of these cases illustrate the continuing challenge that Obama faces with moving Washington politics beyond partisanship, as he promised in his 2008 campaign.
Had Obama lost in 2012, his White House years likely would be viewed as an unexpected moment in American history, a brief triumph of youthful idealism over the hard realities of policy-making. Now that a two-term Obama presidency is a reality, opponents can no longer risk a "wait and see" approach to governing. The recent compromise with the outgoing 112th Congress to raise taxes only on the highest wage earners illustrates that policy-makers recognize the urgency to act, and Obama can capitalize on that urgency in his second term.
First, he must set the agenda. The window of opportunity in a presidential term is the initial 12 to 18 months; after that, Washington shifts focus to midterm elections, which makes long-term planning highly unlikely. After the tragedy in Connecticut, Obama has made gun control a top priority. Where else will he invest his political capital?
He may have an opportunity to achieve major, lasting reform in immigration and the tax code. The complexity and controversy surrounding both issues make congressional initiative unlikely, so leadership will have to come from the White House if the nation is to move forward in these areas, which have not seen major overhauls since Ronald Reagan's second term.
Second, he must practice public and private diplomacy. Democrats made inroads in both chambers of Congress in 2012. But with Republican control of the House intact, the White House will have to engage in hard negotiations, particularly on such thorny issues as passing a budget and addressing the federal deficit. Public rhetoric on both sides will undoubtedly escalate.
Agreement won't be reached in the public sphere, however; it will require lengthy deliberations behind closed doors, with leaders from both parties continuing the conversation regardless of deep disagreements about fiscal priorities. Many politicians have criticized Obama for aloofness and a perceived disinclination to engage in deal-making. The president needs to pursue, even create, opportunities for deliberation and compromise. Bill Clinton's ability to keep the lines of communication open throughout his budget dealings with a Republican Congress for six years provides a helpful example.
Finally, Obama should take risks. With no need to worry about election ever again -- unless he follows John Quincy Adams' example and runs for Congress after leaving the White House -- Obama is well positioned to make history substantively as well as electorally. He already will be in the history books for many reasons: taking the Democratic nomination from the party's virtually anointed nominee in 2008, becoming the nation's first African-American president, and enacting major health care reform are just a few. Obama campaigned in 2008 on what he called "the fierce urgency of now," borrowing from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. With the inaugural address taking place on Martin Luther King Day, what better way to honor King's legacy than to make Americans understand what we need to do to keep the nation thriving well into the 21st century?
Policy-making is incremental by nature, but bold ideas are needed to foster any change. Obama's second inaugural address will reveal just how much change the president is willing to pursue.
Meena Bose is director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency and a professor of political science at Hofstra University.