The lost promise of a second term

With his words and deeds, Obama risks sleepwalking the United States into another era of division and tension

Will things go more smoothly second time round?
Dr. James Boys
On 16 January 2013 14:08

Four years ago Washington, D.C. was preparing for Barack Obama's first inaugural address. Coming after eight years of George W. Bush, many were anticipating a new dawn and the prospect of ‘change we could believe in.’

By all accounts a million people made their way to the National Mall to witness the historic ceremony as the first African American took the oath of office, delivered somewhat haltingly and incorrectly by the Chief Justice. This was far from being an auspicious beginning and in many ways set the tone for the next four years: a total lack of communication between Obama and the more conservative elements in Washington. In fact, a breakdown in communication that caused the oath of office to be repeated in a private ceremony and which has led to stalemate in Washington ever since.

Obama faces a huge week that will define the next four years of American political life. Vice President Joe Biden is set to unveil new gun control measures and the President will deliver his second inaugural address. Both occasions present the White House with an opportunity to define the parameters of debate moving into the second term, but the omens are not particularly positive.

Having been acclaimed as a wonderful communicator four years ago, Obama's rhetorical skills have been undermined during his first term. It has become all too apparent that when working from an autocue he can technically deliver a speech as well as anyone, but that when forced to ad lib he is all too human and reveals his disdain for doubters. This was apparent this week at his press conference, a testy affair more akin to a Nixon-era event then anything of late. This even manifested itself in the decision to stage the event in the East Room of the White House with the president’s back literally against the wall, as opposed to the Cross Hall, as has been the tradition since the Reagan years.

The symbolism was striking and was reinforced by a series of probing questions from Julianna Goldman and Major Garret that cut to the heart of Obama's challenges: His perceived unwillingness negotiate and contradictions between his current stance on the debt ceiling and his previous voting record. It seems that Obama is entering his second term with the press finally prepared to ask some tough(er) questions.

A major focus of that press conference was gun control legislation. In the aftermath of the shootings at Sandyhook, many experts (apart from this one) insisted that change was now inevitable. The president even came out and demanded that Americans change their ways. However, in the weeks that have elapsed reality appears to have returned to the capital as the White House has conceded that legislation is unlikely to succeed. Hence the announcement at Obama's final press conference of his first term that executive orders are being considered to address the issue.

Now don't get me wrong, I can't see why automatic weapons are needed by law abiding citizens and I think a distinction can and should be drawn between a variety of firearms, but the White House is making a very poor display of dealing with this issue. It is telling that it has placed Joe Biden in charge of the matter, an indication, perhaps, of the president's own lack of congressional experience? Yet by suggesting the use of executive orders before the measures have been released reveals both hubris and a lack of faith in the system of government. American democracy is predicated on the idea of compromise. In this case, the White House can recommend, Congress can debate, and after some give and take, a solution should emerge. But what the White House appears to be conceding is that this will not be possible, so instead it will pass initiatives by presidential decree, effectively by-passing Congress.

Executive orders are nothing new, but recall the criticism that George W. Bush received when he attempted something similar. Such orders should be the exception, not the rule, but we appear to have arrived at an era of government by decree, totally at odds with the philosophical concept of American democracy; frankly a rather poor way to commence a second term in office.

Twenty years ago, in his first inaugural address, Bill Clinton declared that “the era of gridlock and drift is over and a new season of American renewal has begun.” This sounded good, but reality proved very different as Clinton found himself on the wrong side of an impeachment. As Obama moves to initiate gun control legislation, Republican lawmakers are already contemplating a similar fate for Obama.

With his second inaugural address, Obama has the chance to bring the nation together and start the process of healing America; a job he should have begun four years ago. Yet little has occurred in the weeks that have elapsed since his re-election to suggest that he will attempt to do so, seeking instead to laud his own success, attack his opponents, and continue the policies that have seen the United States become more divided than at any time in recent years.

His first inaugural was eminently forgettable and few imagine his second will be any different. To succeed, Obama needs to recognise, in the words of his Illinois predecessor, that "we are not enemies, but friends. We must not become enemies..."

With his words and deeds, Obama risks sleepwalking the United States into another era of division and tension that will once again test “the better angels of our nature.” He must seek instead to achieve “a just and lasting peace amongst Americans and with other nations.” This is his challenge, and one he needs to start addressing after four years in office. 

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

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