Quo Vadis, Barack Obama?

By J Brooks Spector 21 January 2013

Just as the American Constitution stipulates, on Sunday, 20 January, at noon, Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th president of the United States, repeated the same 35-word oath of office repeated by every previous US president: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” With those words, his second four-year term of office began officially, after a convincing, substantial, yet not completely overwhelming victory on 6 November 2012 against his opponent, Republican candidate Mitt Romney. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

It is a historical oddity that Barack Obama will only be the second president to take this oath of office four separate times. In 2009, he ended up taking it twice because the US Chief Justice John Roberts bobbled the wording and so, just to make sure they had dotted all the “i’s” and crossed all the “t’s” constitutionally, they did it again the next day. This time around, they’ve scheduled a second, public oath taking for Monday, 21 January. This one will come with all the ruffles and flourishes, the usual parade, the anthem singing – Alicia Keyes gets the honour this time, the president’s inaugural address, a couple of inaugural balls and all the rest of the hoopla. The only other president to take that oath four times was Franklin D Roosevelt – and he was elected four straight times – from 1933, when the Great Depression was arguably at its most intense, through to a fourth inauguration that took place in 1945, just weeks before the end of European hostilities in World War II. Obama is one of only 16 presidents elected twice – and he is only the fourth Democratic president re-elected since the beginning of the 20th century, after Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.

Of course, Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 was an extraordinary moment in American history. The son of an Kenyan exchange student and a young white woman from Kansas, in his race for the White House, Obama had successfully confounded the legions of naysayers, becoming the country’s first African-American (and bi-racial) president – and one of very few who had lived abroad (as a child in Indonesia) for pivotal periods in his own life.

But by the time Obama entered the White House in January 2009, the country was in the midst of a deep, growing financial and economic crisis, and even panic, at home and abroad. At the beginning of 2009, the country was shedding about 500,000 jobs a month, financial markets were in free fall and the foundations of the country’s credit and banking system, with all those knock-on effects worldwide, were edging closer to a nearly unprecedented meltdown. Major US industries, like the automotive sector, an industry that with its subcontractors and supplier networks underpins the entire economy, were close to flatlining. And, of course, the country was heartily sick of its drawn-out, increasingly pointless military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan that had been bequeathed Obama by his predecessor, George W Bush.

The ensuing four years have clearly been less than smooth sailing for Obama – count the grey hairs that now come with residence in the Oval Office. Obama initially entered office buoyed by an enormous rush of national popular feeling for “change”, but in the actual way of government, much of this depended on eliciting bipartisan cooperation from Republicans (as well as a crucial number of those conservative, “blue dawg” Democrats) in the Congress. Though the Obama administration eventually succeeded by some very narrow margins in getting a economic stimulus package and a healthcare reform measure passed after some lengthy, bruising struggles with Congress, the results of these battles have made further cooperation on a still-larger agenda – especially the chimerical “grand bargain” on taxes and spending ever more difficult to achieve.

So difficult and contested have the battles within Congress and between the Republican House and the Obama administration become that over the past several years, Congress has been unable to carry out its basic function of passing executive department budgets. This has happened amid continuing fights over tax changes, spending reductions, annual rises in the debt ceiling. As a result, too, efforts to lower the national deficit and debt remain mired in conflict between the two wings of government. For many observers, the Congress that took over in 2010 with its actual Republican majority in the House and a very slim Democratic one in the Senate finally eclipsed the record of non-achievement by that so-called “do-nothing Congress” that gave Harry Truman so much election campaign fodder in his 1948 victory against Thomas E Dewey.

Because America has a presidential rather than a parliamentary system with fixed dates for elections, a presidential transfer of power doesn’t always coincide neatly with moments of great national challenge the way they might do in a parliamentary system. In the latter, a daunting foreign policy or domestic challenge often provokes that vote of no confidence, a snap election or a decision by a prime minister to step down and cede power to a successor in the same party, as with Margaret Thatcher’s giving way to John Major in 1990.

By contrast, in America, serious political and economic challenges and the elections do not usually line up so cleanly. Yes, Abraham Lincoln took office just as the Civil War was about to break but his victory may have actually hastened the war’s coming, and Roosevelt only came into office as the Great Depression had already taken hold. In the latter case, Roosevelt only became president after several years of the hapless Hoover administration floundering efforts to deal with economic collapse.

On the other hand, the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Clinton era was the moment of entry into the post-Cold War era. And Barack Obama’s assumption of the presidency four years ago may mark the transition from the era of the US as the world’s one essential mega-power (following the breakup of the Soviet Union) – and onto a world with China as a new, emerging power – and a whole array of mid-range powers like Brazil, India, Iran and Indonesia capable of affecting their respective regions.

The confluence of this striking geopolitical shift, the after-effects of imperial adventure into Iraq, the continuing tendrils of the earlier global financial crisis and an appreciation of the broad impact of the American budgetary crisis (the growing cost of entitlements like Medicare as the baby boom generation goes grey, the continued high cost of the defence budget – partly as a carryover from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the interest cost of the national debt) together pose a fundamental change in the exercise of American influence. As a result, the Obama administration is now confronted with addressing the challenges of lowering expectations of national influence to completely affect global circumstances unilaterally, even as his administration attempts to bring together broader coalitions to effect those things this president hopes to see occur.

Trying to weigh the success (and failures) of the Obama administration internationally, The Economist has argued recently, “There is much to like about the foreign policies pursued by President Barack Obama during his first years in office. Rational and reasonable, they have blended strategic optimism with tactical caution, and tempered grand visions with a careful weighing of costs. Only one flaw has betrayed Mr Obama’s thoughtful plans. Time and again, they have not really worked… aides point to the lessons about the limits of American power learned over more than a decade of war. Serving and retired officials, policy experts and diplomats from friendly governments express understanding for the meagre results of Mr Obama’s first-term diplomacy. They see the logic of lowering ambitions and focusing sharply on that which can be achieved. They sympathise with his caution about confronting lobbies and special interests as he sought re-election. But if the president remains as coolly calculating and reluctant to engage in his second term, even firm friends will find it hard to forgive.”

And so, with much hanging in the balance, and given these perspectives and realities, what will Obama be able to say in this, his second inaugural address, once all the other formalities like the oath of office, the singing of the national anthem, and poet Richard Blanco’s reading of poetry written for this state occasion take place? On international television on Sunday morning, in thinking ahead to this inauguration, Michael Gerson and Dan Baer, former aides to presidents Bush and Clinton respectively, agreed that the gold standard for a second inaugural address still remains, 153 years later, Abraham Lincoln’s speech, delivered on 4 March 1865, at the very cusp of victory by the Union over the Confederate states. Rather than a triumphal war cry and a whoop of victory, Lincoln chose to end: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In the lead-up to this day, Obama has certainly not lacked for outside advice. To help nudge him along in preparing his inaugural address, editorial writers at major newspapers and magazines, every think tank worth its endowment, and columnists and all the other miscellaneous members of the commentariat have all been working overtime to offer ideas, proposals, perspectives, grand strategic visions and compelling political analyses for Obama’s delectation and consideration.

Taken together, these ideas cover the waterfront (A selection of these are in the Read More references below). But they boil down –sometimes contradictorily – to working more closely with the Republicans and confronting them head-on; putting the budget/tax/deficit issue first or making social issues like immigration and weapons regulation the key to defining his presidency and his legacy; and focusing first on the US relationship with China or making a broad approach to a whole range of other nations and nascent democratic states on ideological grounds. Even within his own, now-shaping-up second administration, there are remain some disagreements on foreign policy – including how to tackle tensions in the Middle East such as Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions, Israel’s increasingly recalcitrant positions on West Bank settlements, and how to respond to the still-evolving, continuing aftermath of the Arab Spring.

And so, what might be included in Obama’s second inaugural address? For starters, it seems logical to look for a review of how far his administration has come from the vicissitudes bequeathed him by George W Bush – from the Iraq War, to the imminent collapse of the financial system and country’s near-lurch into a sustained recession. Expect him to review economic and legislative successes, even if they remain contested by some, such as passage of the healthcare reform bill, financial services reform, the stimulus package, the return to growth and reduction in unemployment, and the rescue of the auto industry.

Internationally, he will reiterate the end of US involvement in Iraq, the continuing draw- down in Afghanistan, and a gradual switch to refocusing US attention to coping effectively with the growing, resurgent China. In what will be a trickier bit of rhetoric, Obama will speak to the awkward, difficult efforts to engage with a post-Arab Spring Middle East, including the effects of al-Qaeda-related franchises in the Sahel, pointing to the challenge of a still-evolving, broad change of long-time social and political structures. Somehow, too, he will want to touch on Europe’s current financial troubles, without offering major amounts of US aid – beyond moral support.

But the heart of Obama’s inaugural address will be an effort to redefine the nation’s social contract. Something presaged in recent remarks, he will want to speak to this social contract as a pact that is between all of the country’s citizens and he will call for renewed commitment to self-sacrifice for the larger, greater common good. Perhaps here is where he will include a call for a fuller commitment to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, as well as his plea to Congress to take up his just-announced proposals for congressional action on the regulation of firearms in the wake of Newtown, as an exercise in reasserting national safety and security.

Here too, perhaps, Obama will underscore his ongoing arguments for greater tax equity and fairness – as with shifting a bit more of the tax burden to those most able to pay it – as a way of helping buy down some of the national debt that is such a fearsome thing to congressional Republicans. In making this new argument for a reenergised social contract for the 21st century, perhaps he will do a riff on and a reach-back to his own peroration from his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic national convention in Boston where he had famously said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.”

Finally, too, watch out for shout-outs to ordinary men and women who do their jobs, help their neighbours and defend their country without complaint. But this speech is just the first of three important, interlinked, statements by the second Obama administration. The next two are the State of the Union speech to Congress and then the President’s Annual Budget Message. This is where the real details will come. But this time around, in front of the US Capitol Building, before the nation and the world, symbolically on the Martin Luther King Day commemoration as well, and drawing yet one more time on his own narrative, Barack Obama will try to position himself so that his own story is a tangible embodiment of the larger American dream – and thereby include the rest of his fellow citizens in that same enduring vision. DM

Read more:

  • Fifty-seventh Presidential Inauguration – January 21, 2013
  • On 2nd term eve, Obama cites commitment to service at the AP
  • Obama eyes a legacy: ‘You can make it if you try’ at the AP
  • In Vietnam vets Hagel and Kerry, Obama finds champions of retrenchment (a column by neoconservative Arab scholar Fouad Ajami) in the Washington Post
  • A new term, a new Obama (a column by Obama and Clinton biographer David Maraniss) in the Washington Post
  • How will history see me? – If Barack Obama wants to be remembered as a great president, he should focus on three long-term problems in The Economist
  • Time to engage – Barack Obama’s first-term caution was understandable, but he must now show greater resolve in the Economist
  • Obama Should Talk About Being Biracial at the Daily Beast
  • Barack Obama’s second term – US president must recapture promise of a better politics at the Financial Times
  • Does Obama have a grand strategy for his second term? If not, he could try one of these (a column by Anne-Marie Slaughter) in the Washington Post
  • Envisioning 2030: US Strategy for a Post-Western World from the ACUS (Atlantic Council) think tank

Photo: U.S President Barack Obama (L) takes the oath of office from U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (R) as first lady Michelle Obama holds the bible and daughters Malia (3rd-L) and Sasha look on in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington, January 20, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing


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