Robert Schmuhl: Second term will truly test Obama's mettle
Published 18/01/2013 | 17:00
When Barack Obama was preparing to seek the US presidency, he introduced himself and his views in a book, 'The Audacity of Hope'. With shrewd self-awareness, he observed in the prologue: "I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes can project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all of them."
Since winning the White House in 2008, Mr Obama has come into sharper focus, with the "screen" depicting him to America and the world filled with images that reveal a complicated, at times contradictory, figure. Beyond his million-dollar smile is a strong ego willing to disappoint anyone not agreeing with him.
As Mr Obama embarks on his second term with Monday's inauguration ceremonies, who he is and how he conducts himself as president are much less mysterious than four years ago when expectations for him defied gravity. Today clouds intrude on the past's sunny optimism.
Thanks to Democratic control of Congress through his first two years in office, Mr Obama signed into law healthcare reform, helped the US auto industry recover and strengthened regulations for Wall Street, among other initiatives.
But the administration's activism hit a wall after the 2010 mid-term elections when Republicans won the majority in the House of Representatives, which they continue to hold.
This president is more at home – and effective – in using "the bully pulpit" of his office than in negotiating across a table behind closed doors. In angry frustration, he walked out of a 2011 meeting with House Republicans about raising the government's debt ceiling, and a few weeks ago Vice President Joe Biden (instead of Mr Obama) worked directly with the Congressional opposition to keep the country from toppling off the "fiscal cliff".
While the president establishes policy and articulates it in speeches, Mr Biden plays a significant governmental and political role. Garrulous and gregarious, the vice president is referred to as "the human connection" for constantly meeting with different groups and individuals who in some cases are not friendly with the administration.
Back in 2008, as Mr Obama impressed so many observers with his soaring oratory, the adjective "cool" was repeatedly used to describe him. More and more these days, you hear whispers that the cool self-assurance might actually be closer to a chilly, even cold, personality. He enjoys the stage, but he also likes being alone or with a select, self-chosen few.
Mr Obama's earlier life included more solitary, cerebral pursuits as a writer and academic.
In a recent interview with 'Time' when he was named that magazine's 2012 'Person of the Year', Mr Obama revealed that he's keeping a diary.
"In my life, writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are," he said. "The process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions."
During his second term, Mr Obama will be tested by tough questions that come with problems associated with mounting federal debt, frustrations of divided government and all the rest. In last autumn's campaign, he proved for a second time he knows what it takes to win the presidency.
Governing, however, is more complex. Mastering the stagecraft of statecraft is essential in the media age, but so, too, is direct executive involvement to work out policy details and settle vexing disputes.
"I'm more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms," Mr Obama asserted during his first news conference after being re-elected.
Lessons learned from books possess value, but beginning Monday we'll all see whether reading – and writing – produce the type of presidential leadership that helps resolve the most demanding concerns confronting today's America.
Robert Schmuhl is Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame