Inauguration 2013 is different from the 2009 version in many ways – not least the president himself. He's learned some tough political lessons, but he still seems to have ambitious plans.
Four years ago, on the eve of his first inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama faced enormous challenges and sky-high expectations.
The economy was on the verge of collapse, and the nation was embroiled in two wars. But Americans were infused with optimism that the young senator from Illinois, about to make history as the nation’s first black president, would deliver on his promise of transformational, post-partisan leadership.
Mr. Obama took office with a Gallup job approval rating in the stratosphere, near 70 percent. Now he embarks on his second term with the public stature of a mere mortal – job approvals averaging in the low 50s, up from first-term lows that had dipped below 40 percent – and even starker polarization.
“Hope and change” have given way to cold-eyed realism. Obama’s big Democratic majorities in Congress – the one-party rule that allowed him to pass the biggest stimulus bill in history, auto and financial industry bailouts, and sweeping health-care reform – are long gone, in part precisely because of all those big measures.
But as circumstances have changed, so too has Obama. Having entered office without much executive experience, he has learned by doing. Initially, his impulse was to throw out broad concepts and let his Democratic allies in Congress fill in the legislative details. After the midterm shellacking, and the tea-party fueled Republican takeover of the House, the next two years were marked by gridlock and brinkmanship – and an ugly reelection campaign.
Now Obama is playing a different game.
“He’s had a steep learning curve, but I think he’s learned a bit about how to negotiate,” says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “He’s tougher now.”
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