Every four years, the inauguration of a US president offers a moment of profound national reflection. It differs fundamentally from the annual State of the Union address, putting aside the nitty-gritty of legislation and partisan politics so that the president can fix his eye on some higher truth. Abraham Lincoln’s exhortation to “bind up the nation’s wounds” after the Civil War; John F. Kennedy’s injunction to “Ask not what your country can do for you”, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s defiant “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” on the eve of the Great Depression are the enduring examples. Barack Obama’s first inaugural speech aimed high, but fell too often to the temptations of windbaggery, warning of “gathering clouds and raging storms”, proclaiming an end to the “petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas” of Washington politics.
Four years later, Obama is facing renewed calls to show greater leadership, both at home and abroad: To strike a grand bargain to put America on a sustainable fiscal track and show more mettle overseas with Iran, Syria and the wider Middle East.
Yet, after four years in office, he stands before the American people as a piecemeal president. His record, while not without its successes, has been measured not in the great leaps he promised, but in increments: Passing a watered-down version of health care reform, presiding over an insipid economic recovery, getting the US out of Afghanistan and Iraq, staying out of Syria and “leading from behind” during the Arab Spring. These do not amount to a sound platform for grandiloquence, as Obama’s often-muted performance during last year’s election showed. So will he offer something more substantial in his second term?
The early signs have not been encouraging. Fleeting hope among some Democrat thinkers that Obama, now freed from the need to seek re-election, will paint with a broader, bolder brush already look wildly optimistic. The world largely welcomed the end of rash, Bush-era interventionism, but Obama’s at-times painful prudence has left deep uncertainties in its place.
The nomination of the war-loathing Chuck Hagel as Defence Secretary, talk of a “zero option”, or full withdrawal, in Afghanistan and even less backing for rebels in Syria do not bode well for those hoping this president will show more international gumption in his second term. At home, despite the fig-leaf success of a last-minute deal over avoiding the fiscal cliff, America’s long-term financial woes — which CEOs at the Detroit Motor Show last week warned will continue to undermine long-term confidence — are no closer to resolution. Even the “deal-that-never-was” between Obama and John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the house, amounted only to $2.5 trillion (Dh9.19 trillion) in cuts and revenues over 10 years, when more than $4 trillion was needed to start to turn back the sapping tide of debt.
To do that, Obama will have to make a serious offer to reduce entitlements, which, above all, means coming clean that Medicare, the pensioners’ health scheme, cannot continue in its current form or, within 15 years, it will account for 40 per cent of all US Federal spending. Alas, he shows no intention of doing this.
On the issue of gun control, Obama has shown superficial leadership, mobilising his grassroots election machine to appeal to the public over the heads of Congress — and a similar strategy is planned on immigration — but it is hard to see how this translates into downstream legislative achievement.
As with his crowing victory over forcing Republicans to raise taxes on the well-off, the overriding tone has been one of narrow, single-issue political point-scoring. The announcement that the “Obama for America” campaign machine is to be turned into a permanent, non-profit cheerleading group suggests more of the same to come. Notable by its absence — as it was from both parties during the election — is any broader Obama strategy to fix America’s problems: No recognition of how the world’s most powerful nation now finds itself at a fiscal and strategic pivot-point, no real vision of how the country intends to fit western values into an Asian century.
Obama’s supporters contend that the piecemeal achievements will yet add up to a lasting legacy: Passing universal health care (if indeed that is how it turns out when ObamaCare is implemented next year), withdrawing from two unwanted wars, heading off the financial crisis, bailing out the auto industry and using the fruits of America’s domestic energy boom to create a more competitive, greener economy.
However, an inauguration must be about more than increments. Perhaps this will be the moment that Obama comes clean to the American people about both the perils they face — as his hero Lincoln did when addressing the issues of slavery in his own second inaugural nearly 150 years ago — and the remedies required. On past performance, however, we must brace ourselves to be underwhelmed.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, 2012