WASHINGTON — The mood was ebullient that day. A new face, a new breed of politician, had put his hand on the Bible that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln. Then the 47-year-old Barack Obama, born of a struggling white mother and a black father he barely knew, walked with his family to the White House, carrying with him a nation’s hopes, fears, and dreams.
But by the day’s end, harsh realities would become clear, previewing the challenges and messy politics to come: The stock market plunged 4 percent.
Four years after that day of history, the mood in advance of President Obama’s second inaugural is rooted more in reality and a sense of limits. The talk in the nation’s capital is no longer about grand ideas, or sweeping generational change. It’s about whether the government will be able to pay its bills next month. And although Obama sought to be a postpartisan president, his tenure is increasingly being marked by bruising partisan battles.
At the White House, however, the belief is that this is not just a second inaugural but a second act, with a changed man in the lead who has been shaped by his first term, emboldened by the lessons learned, who is seeking new ways to gain ground with or without the support of the opposition party.
“One thing we learned in the first term, especially the first two years, was it became a very inside Washington game to pass these things,” Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s 2012 campaign and was previously Obama’s deputy chief of staff, said in an interview. “But we need to remember how we won this and that is by bringing the country together.”
Obama’s second-term power is different. It is no longer driven by the blunt political instrument of his first two years in office, when his party controlled both chambers of Congress and could pass legislation without a single Republican vote.
Now, Obama must rely on a more subtle art of politics and persuasion, spoken with the confidence of a man reelected by millions of Americans. He feels emboldened, aides say, to take on some of the nation’s hardest targets — gun control, announced last week; immigration reform; the deficit; climate change. And, to make his case, he has ahead of him the bully pulpit of his inaugural address on Monday and, three weeks later, the State of the Union.
Those two speeches — being crafted by Jon Favreau, 31, from North Reading, Mass., who has channeled Obama’s words for nearly eight years — will provide the blueprint for how Obama hopes to use his political capital before it diminishes over the next four years.
Yet mostly gone is the idea that he can heal the nation’s deep political divisions simply by preaching from a lectern. Instead, according to his advisers, Obama plans to spend more time going around Congress and communicating directly with the public, deploying the organizational campaign techniques that helped him win reelection, and utilizing more of the executive powers of the presidency.
“He goes into his second inauguration . . . as a hardened politician,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University. “The spirit of bipartisanship is not nearly as strong as it once was in the White House. He comes in more as a fighter, willing to take on an opposition.”
Working around Congress
Obama’s first term had begun in crisis but, notwithstanding harsh criticism from Republicans, it resulted in the major accomplishments of the stimulus bill, health care legislation, the auto bailout, Wall Street regulation, the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. It also included a devastating midterm election that left the GOP in control of the House.
Even with Obama’s resounding reelection, he has only control of the Senate, and lacks a filibuster-proof majority in that chamber. While his victory earlier this month on the slimmed-down package that averted the “fiscal cliff” raised hopes in the White House that he can win by dividing the Republican Party, that is a narrow road for future success, one lined with inevitable partisan acrimony.
So, while Obama will continue to try to find a pathway in Congress to tackle issues such as tax reform and immigration, he plans to lay the foundation for other paths to policy change as he heads into his second term. Chief among these alternative pathways, according to his advisers, is the plan to take full advantage of the legal powers of his office, relying more on executive orders to impose his agenda rather than working with a recalcitrant Congress. This reflects the evolution in his thinking since his 2011 failure to conclude a “grand bargain” with House Speaker John Boehner on the budget.Continued...