Liberated and liberal Obama sets second-term agenda

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This was the real Barack Obama: not the calculating party politician with an eye on the next election, not a president sometimes accused of aloofness, even passivity – but a national leader boldly setting out what he wants to do, and only too aware he has precious little time to achieve it.

Today’s inaugural speech was the 57th in US history, and among recent specimens, one of the very best, likely to live in the memory much longer than Mr Obama’s first in 2009. With its tight focus on domestic issues, it was the polar opposite of the last second inaugural, George W. Bush’s call to arms to “end tyranny in our world.”

Gone is the requirement for “perpetual war” to ensure national security. Mr Obama instead vowed to seek to resolve differences with other countries peaceably – “not because we are naïve….but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

This was Obama the liberated liberal, or ‘progressive’, as liberals now prefer to call themselves. This was Obama the realist but also Obama the idealist, a president tempered by four years of bitter partisan battle in Washington, yet one who knew that the circumstances were far more favourable than when he took office four years ago.

Then, America was threatened by a second depression and struggling to extricate itself from two wars. Now the economy is recovering, US troops are out of Iraq and will soon be out of Afghanistan. He has the political capital generated by an election recently and handsomely won. His Republican opponents are in disarray.

 The specifics will only be set out in his State of the Union address next month, but Mr Obama served notice of his priorities: action on climate change, on the federal deficit and the need to rein back health care and entitlement spending, on comprehensive immigration reform. His mention of the word ‘Newtown’ was guarantee that gun control will be on the agenda – as will full and equal rights for gays, the next stage in America’s civil rights struggle.

Today was Martin Luther King day, and America’s first black president vowed to continue Dr King’s journey. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he declared – “for if we are created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” No president has ever embraced the gay cause so unequivocally.

Naturally, this and other parts of the speech won’t go down well with many Republicans, even with some more conservative Democrats. But Mr Obama today was not triumphalist or confrontational; rather this was a president serving notice he would no longer stand aloof from the fray, who would fight for compromise and common sense.

If the political system was to yield results, give and take was essential: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle.” No measure passed by Congress would be perfect, but that was no excuse for inaction. Dr King’s ‘fierce urgency of now’ was the true theme of the president’s speech.

Mr Obama of course has a fight on his hands. Inaugurals are occasions for soaring rhetoric, where neither awkward details, nor the eternal shortcomings of human nature, nor the dictates of the American political calendar get in the way.

The reality of the last is that this president has perhaps 18 months to complete his domestic legacy. Come mid-2014, the mid-term elections will move centre stage, then battle lines will be drawn for the contest to succeed Mr Obama. As for the Republicans, they have have been severely bloodied, but are not unbowed. The 44th president has his second term sights extremely high. Yesterday though, he made a pretty good start.

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