WASHINGTON: Anywhere you look, President Barack Obama looks different heading into his second term.
He’s won back-to-back budget battles with congressional Republicans. He’s delivered a muscular inaugural address that laid out an assertive, liberal vision of an activist government. He’s even unveiled a new official photograph, grayer, of course, but also smiling broadly with his arms crossed confidently across his chest in a pointed departure from the unassuming portrait he sent out four years ago.
It’s an open question whether this new aggressive tone will translate into a new governing style for Obama. Will Obama 2.0 lead forcefully, proposing specific programs and pushing them through Congress? Or will he continue to “lead from behind,” the less-than-flattering description of his first-term approach when he often let Congress work out the details and allowed allies to take the point in international engagement?
He starts the year with the budget wins over Republicans, getting them to sign off on tax increases on the wealthy and to stand down on their threat to force spending cuts in exchange for allowing the government to keep borrowing to pay its bills.
“He pretty much won both confrontations, so he’s got to believe he’s on a roll,” said William Galston, a top adviser in the Clinton White House and a current scholar at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.
But those wins are not automatically signs of what’s to come.
The Republicans largely agreed to the tax increases on the wealthy because they were going up anyway. Their decision to temporarily suspend the debt ceiling did not surrender their right to fight for spending cuts with other pieces of legislation. And the entire Congress remains uncertain terrain for such Obama proposals as new controls on guns or as-yet unspecified proposals to curb climate change.
“This second-term strategy rests on the hypothesis that the Republican House can be broken. Time will tell,” Galston said. “I suspect after a couple of early victories, it’s going to become a much harder slog.”
Details to come
Will Obama start telling Congress precisely what he wants, and not just the broad principles?
White House aides said Obama will lay out more details of his agenda in his Feb. 12 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.
“Inaugural addresses tend to be about the president’s vision, about how we move forward together as a country,” said White House chief of staff Jay Carney, adding that “policy specifics” are better suited for the State of the Union address.
On his pledge to protect gay rights, Obama said in his inaugural address that “our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” But Carney suggested this week that Obama won’t push for federal recognition of gay marriage, saying the president believes it’s a matter for states to decide.
On guns, he has proposed specifics and now is launching a campaign to rally public pressure on Congress to act.
Indeed, the White House, which repeatedly has looked outside Washington to pressure a recalcitrant Congress, will formalize that tactic in Obama’s second term. Days before the inauguration, Obama announced his re-election campaign — and its database of supporters — will be morphed into a new political organization that will press his agenda over the next four years.
Obama for America will become Organizing for Action, a nonprofit, tax-exempt political group that will try to build support for Obama’s priorities.
Ultimately, Obama’s assertive agenda for a second term might be aimed as much at history as for the moment.
“What you’re hearing in a second inaugural is a person projecting his legacy,” said Kathleen Hall Jamison, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words.
“Whether he accomplishes them or not, if throughout the second term he fights for them,” she said, “then his legacy will have been that he identified them as important and that he fought to address them.”