Yes, we can. Obama proclaimed and got elected in 2009. Yes, he could have. But he didn’t. Or, he didn’t at least the way most of us expected of him. It’s this reality that haunts us as Barack Obama is sworn in for a second term.
Obama was sworn in at the Capitol Hill with less pomp and splendor yesterday. As expected, it was a scaled back inauguration, with up to 700,000 people in attendance, compared to the record 1.8 million who assembled four years ago. This time, the enthusiasm of both president and his people have been tempered by the hard facts of his first term, the most striking of which is that the change which the president promised remains just that: a promise. There were two major achievements in the first term: the economic stimulus bill and healthcare reforms. Other promises failed to take off and on climate change, on Middle Eastern peace, on closing the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison camp etc, he gave up when we thought he had just begun.
For those who are investing high hopes in his second term, Robert W Merry, who has written about how presidents are evaluated, has an answer. “It’s almost impossible to find a president who had a second term better than his first,” he said. Among those who are not very optimistic include Democrats who say that the political environment is too poisonous for the president to bring in seminal changes.
On the positive side, Obama has learnt some of his lessons fast. He is no longer in a conciliatory mood and is ready for a fight with Republicans. Yesterday, he spoke in a more assertive tone about the challenges facing the United States; asked Americans to reject political absolutism and partisan rancor. He confidently listed the second-term battles he intended to fight which included climate change, immigration reforms and gay rights. Unfortunately, the Middle East peace has vanished from his radar, if not completely, and he is uncommitted on Guantanamo and on rethinking the controversial drone attacks which are killing innocent people and children.
It should work in his favour that in the second term, Obama will not be constrained by the compulsions of a first term and therefore must garner more courage on policy issues. He needs to act more decisively on the Palestinian issue and Syria, where his intervention is keenly awaited. Unfortunately, a virulently right-wing government to be led by Benjamin Netanyahu will come to power in Israel soon. Obama’s policy on Palestinian issue has been a refusal to engage with Netanyahu, with whom he has a fractious relationship.
If the president doesn’t act, another option for the region is to come to grips with his constraints and learn to move on.