Obama's next four years


Endorsed by the people after four years in office and no longer constrained by the prospect of another election, US presidents often face their second inauguration with renewed confidence and vigour. The second terms of recent presidents are remembered, however, more for their mishaps than their achievements – Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra affair, Bill Clinton’s impeachment over Monica Lewinsky, and George W Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina.

As he takes the oath of office for the second time on the steps of the Capitol today, Barack Obama must hope that, despite the gloomy precedents, his second term will be more effective than the first. The glad, confident morning of his first inauguration, which brought the biggest crowd to Washington for any public event in the city’s history, is now a dim memory – and for some of the president’s disappointed supporters a bitter one.

Mr Obama was confronted with extraordinary challenges, notably the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, ill-conceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a Republican opposition in Congress determined to obstruct him at every turn. But the disappointments of his first term are many, from his failure to keep his promise to close the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay to his surprising weakness, despite his rhetorical gifts, in communicating his policies to the public and his apparent incapacity to negotiate effectively with Republicans in Congress.

Mr Obama can do little about the structural difficulties facing all second-term presidents, particularly the electoral timetable that offers only a brief window – about 18 months – before he becomes a lame duck. But he has some advantages that could help to make the next four years more effective. Last November’s election defeat has left Republicans leaderless and divided and the last-minute negotiations over the fiscal cliff last month showed that, if he acts wisely, the president can peel away enough Republicans to create a majority with Democrats in favour of his policies.

Mr Obama has already identified as priorities new measures on gun control and an immigration reform that would offer millions of undocumented immigrants, including many thousands of Irish citizens, a path to US citizenship. On foreign policy, the president will oversee an accelerated withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and a delicate balance between the need for a greater focus on Asia and the enduring importance of the transatlantic relationship. His nomination of Chuck Hagel as defence secretary signals Mr Obama’s determination to reduce the size – and especially the cost – of the US military, a process that could have significant consequences for America’s role in the world.

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