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,” said Galston. “I suspect after a couple of early victories, it’s going to become a much harder slog.”
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. As a first step, Vice President Joe Biden was traveling Friday to the heart of gun country in Richmond, Va., to pitch the president’s proposals.
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 non-profit, tax-exempt political group that will try to build support for Obama’s priorities, including gun control and immigration. In an email to supporters, Obama predicted the group would become “an unparalleled force in American politics” and said it would “work to turn our shared values into legislative action.”
And Organizing for Action plans to “bring the American people more into the debate than we did in the first term,” David Plouffe, Obama’s top political adviser who is expected to play a role in the group when he leaves the White House, told ABC’s “This Week.” A similar effort after Obama’s first election, Organizing for America, made little traction in the health care debate – but Plouffe said the energy is there for a second term.
The campaign’s volunteers “were pretty clear after the election they wanted to stay with it and they want to be out there organizing,” he said.
Obama’s inaugural address reflected a politician who “knows he need not face the electorate again and wants to spend the next years on big deals,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the McClatchy-Marist Poll and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in New York.
Miringoff noted that moments after giving his inaugural address, Obama lingered at the door of the Capitol to drink in the sight of the crowd, spreading blocks to the Washington Monument.
“In many ways, he’s feeling the moment, which he wasn’t in the first term,” Miringoff said. “And now he’s angling to make the case that in difficult times, both substantially and given the dysfunction in Washington, that he managed to move things.”
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.”