Obama's inauguration: No more Mr Nice Guy!

As the President is sworn in again, he aims to avoid the curse of the second term

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The Jumbotrons are in place on Washington's Mall to relay giant images of America's version of a coronation to the assembled multitude. Along Pennsylvania Avenue, the temporary viewing stands are ready for the traditional parade, after Barack Obama has taken the oath of office on the west front of the Capitol and then attended the luncheon offered by the congressional leadership. The menu – lobster followed by grilled bison and rounded off with apple pie – is suitably American (as is the calorie count, a hefty 3,000).

As for Michael Ayers, the Architect of the Capitol who has been in charge of inauguration planning for a year now, he is praying that tomorrow's big day won't be thrown into turmoil by a last-minute fall of snow. But no need to worry. No white stuff is in the forecast, although the temperature will be a distinctly bracing 2C.

In fact, the central part of proceedings is a tiny bit of a sham. Under the constitution, a presidential term starts on 20 January. So Obama will actually begin his second term when he is sworn in today at a private ceremony at the White House, before re-enacting the procedure, and then delivering his inaugural address, 24 hours later.

But if the format of this simple yet most fundamental rite of American governance is unchanging, the mood this time is very different. Second terms, when the central figure is a familiar and known quantity, are by definition short on novelty. And absolutely nothing could recapture the excitement of four years ago, when 1.8 million people turned the Mall into a vast, mile-long carpet of humanity, witnessing the first black president take office after an election that had galvanised the world. His words, too, that frigid winter day in 2009, carried a message of national renewal, as he proclaimed that the country had "chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord".

Four bruising years later, all illusions have been banished. Obama's first term brought great achievements – including a gigantic stimulus package that may have saved the economy from collapse and the most sweeping healthcare reform in 50 years – but only after the most draining battles. Nothing so visibly speeds the ageing process as being president of the United States. Obama himself is gaunter, his hair is heavily flecked with grey, the old spring in his step no longer quite there.

Nor has history been kind to second terms. That of George W Bush, the most recent, was a virtually unmitigated failure. Before that, Bill Clinton's second act is mostly remembered for Monica Lewinsky, while Ronald Reagan's was marred by the Iran-Contra scandal and a growing sense that an old man was losing the plot.

The Obama administration has thus far been remarkably scandal free, while no one suggests this most keenly analytical of presidents, only 51 years old, is losing the plot. But, as with his predecessors, burnout tends to claim the best people who served at the outset – Hillary Clinton is the most notable example this time around. In his second term, Obama will, moreover, have less time to get things done. Immediately after the 2014 mid-terms, if not before, dreaded lame-duckery will set in, as all minds turn to the struggle to succeed him.

So, for all these reasons, the celebrations are more muted. There will still be much merrymaking; Washington's two airports are currently jammed with the private jets of the rich and famous in town for the occasion. On the Mall, however, 800,000 at most are expected, less than half the 2009 turnout, Then, there were 10 official balls and dozens of unofficial ones to mark a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Tomorrow evening, only two official balls, attended by the presidential couple, are on the schedule.

But this second term need not be a write-off. For a few months, at least, Obama stands at the pinnacle. True, the hitherto unremittingly hostile Republicans still control the House of Representatives. But his clear-cut victory in November has given him a fresh injection of prestige and authority. He is liberated as well. There are no more elections to fight, and thus less need to pander to special electoral constituencies. And if the speed and determination with which he is tackling America's gun crisis are any guide, Obama understands both his opportunity, and how quickly it may vanish.

In fact, two scenarios beckon. Under the first, Obama has a real chance to buck the depressing pattern of second terms. His own first was spent digging out from the Bush disasters, extricating the country from two unpopular and costly wars, and from the deepest recession since the 1930s. Those tasks have been largely accomplished. American troops have left Iraq and, to all intents and purposes, will be out of Afghanistan by the end of next year. Unlike Britain's, the US economy is clearly on the mend, something that should not only underpin his approval ratings but also give him more latitude on the tough decisions to reduce the deficit that lie ahead.

Under this scenario, the liberated Obama presses ahead with a "Grand Bargain" with the Republicans to bring the deficit under long-term control. He pushes for the curbs on healthcare and entitlement spending that his own party has resisted. For their part, the Republicans, less in thrall to the radical but increasingly unpopular Tea Party movement, realise that using the House simply to thwart every proposal from the White House will make it less likely they will recapture that same White House in 2016.

And there are a few signs this is happening. Noises emerged from last week's Republican strategy session for the new congress suggesting the party will be less confrontational on the issue of raising the national debt ceiling, the biggest flashpoint of the next few weeks. Logic, moreover, dictates that it strikes a deal with the White House on immigration reform: for how much longer can Republicans afford to sacrifice the Hispanic vote? And, after that, why not a Grand Bargain? That, truly, would add up to a second term to remember, defying every precedent.

But there's another possibility, that all the fine phrases we can expect to hear from Obama tomorrow about compromise, bipartisanship and working together will die the second they hit the chilly air. A sense of foreboding is palpable. Second inaugurations have been likened to second marriages. But there is a crucial difference. A second trip to the altar, it is said, is a triumph of hope over experience. When it comes to the second Obama term right now, bitter experience trumps hope.

Despite Obama's words of four years ago, conflict and discord still rule in Washington. This reflects not just the ideological differences between two parties – but also the lack of personal chemistry between Obama and Republicans on Capitol Hill. If there are signs of improvement on the first score, there are none whatsoever on the second. Politics, here as everywhere else, is about people. And here, the people who really matter just don't personally get along very well.

At the President's White House press conference last week, the most telling moment was not his flat refusal to negotiate on the debt ceiling. It was when a reporter asked, in so many words, whether the real problem was that he was too distant, too aloof and didn't schmooze enough.

Cue a rather snarky riff, in which Obama noted that he liked John Boehner, but that an enjoyable round of golf with the Republican Speaker "didn't get a deal done" on cutting the deficit; and that although he had congressmen over for White House picnics and posed for pictures with their families, that didn't stop them "getting on the floor of the House and blasting me for being a big-spending socialist".

Then came a line thick with faux self-pity, about how his daughters were getting older and "don't want to spend that much time with me ... so I'll probably be calling around looking for someone to play cards with or something, because I'm getting kind of lonely in this big house. So maybe a whole bunch of House Republicans want to come over and socialise more".

Obama is indeed a cool, some would say chilly, customer. But would even masters of wheedling and schmoozing, such as Bill Clinton and LBJ been able to connect with today's breed of congressional Republican, for whom compromise is tantamount to treachery? Maybe this new "no more Mr Nice Guy" approach makes sense. In his first term, when he stretched out his hand to Republicans, it was slapped. Perhaps if Obama plays it tough, taking his arguments over the head of Congress to a more receptive country at large, he'll do better.

But perhaps not. The second term is set to pick up where the first left off, with one fiscal showdown looming after another. Even if a debt ceiling collision is averted, the two sides must find agreement on finessing the $100bn of spending cuts that were merely postponed by the fiscal cliff deal, and then reach a deal to avoid a government shutdown when the current stop-gap budget funding expires at the end of March.

Almost certainly, there will be a huge fight on gun control, on which Obama has now staked so much. That, in turn, could poison prospects for immigration reform. If so, then as for anything worthwhile on climate change, forget it. In barely 18 months, Congress will be gearing up for the mid-terms, and shortly thereafter the President will metamorphose into a waterfowl. The window of opportunity will have closed; two more years will have been wasted, and America's underlying problems will loom larger than ever. Happy inauguration.

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