Obama: the toughened veteran of a turbulent first term who finally 'gets it'


As I prepare to leave Washington for Paris after four years in the US, I consider Barack Obama, the pragmatic idealist about to start his second term

Over the next three days, as Barack Obama’s first term ends and his second begins, a chapter of my own life closes.

After spending virtually my entire adult life in Europe and the Middle East, I returned to the US in 2009 because I wanted to cover the Obama presidency for The Irish Times. For three and a half years, he’s been the central character in the narrative I wrote. When they tidy up Washington after the inaugural balls, I’ll begin packing to go back to Paris.

Several Barack Obamas inhabit the American psyche. I’ve found elements of truth in all of them, except the paranoid, right-wing vision of a foreign-born Muslim Marxist who is hell-bent on transforming the US into “socialist Europe”.

Jaded political observers see Obama as a cool customer whose image is fashioned by PR executives choreographing teleprompter speeches. To many of the 66 million Americans who re-elected him in November, Obama is a fundamentally wise and good leader, struggling to deliver America from its demons.


In recent days, a fourth Obama has emerged: the toughened, street-smart veteran of a turbulent first term who finally “gets it”. That “make my day” Obama this week warned Republicans against taking the US economy hostage in the next round of fiscal chicken. Presenting the first serious gun control initiative since 1994, he urged the public to ask Republicans in Congress “what’s more important? Doing whatever it takes to get an A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?”

Ultimately, we judge our leaders by the emotions they provoke in us.

I know of no other living politician who can move audiences as Obama can. For me, the speeches that stand out are Cairo in 2009, Dublin in 2011, Chicago on election night last November.

He gives us hope, which he defined in Chicago as “that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us”. He calls us to a better self, to “a generous America, a compassionate America, a tolerant America”.

A campaign photograph of Obama hugging his wife Michelle became the most tweeted image in history. On Monday, we’ll see the Obamas with their two beautiful daughters on the Capitol steps. That tightly bound family unit is part of the emotional contract that Americans have with him.

When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009, detractors, and even some supporters, said he won it for making speeches. His more pedantic addresses have put me to sleep. Some angered me.

He accepted the peace prize with a contorted apology for war. In September 2011, before the UN General Assembly, he acknowledged having called the previous year for “an independent, sovereign state of Palestine” to be admitted to the UN. Then he rescinded that promise, saying, “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations.”

Abandoning the Palestinians may have been necessary to secure re-election, but it was not his finest hour.

Obama saw his mother’s naive idealism as weakness. An idealistic streak runs through him, but pragmatism is his default response. He addressed the tension between them in The Audacity of Hope. For his hero, Abraham Lincoln, “It was never a matter of abandoning conviction for the sake of expediency. Rather, it was a matter of maintaining within himself the balance between two contradictory ideas,” he wrote.

At least the president is conscious of the compromises he makes, of the little pieces of his soul he sells off in the belief it’s for the greater good.

Emotional efficiency

That balance between contradictory ideas endows Obama with a rare emotional efficiency. It enables him to get angry over the Gulf oil spill and shed tears over the massacre of schoolchildren. But it also allows him to prosecute a drone war that has killed hundreds of civilians in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He sees the drone war as a necessary evil. He is dispassionate, not morally tortured.

Obama is daring and cautious: daring when he gambled his first term on healthcare legislation and when he ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden; cautious in dealing with the Arab Spring, Syria and Libya.

One constant arcs through the Obama presidency. He plays the long game. If Bill Clinton craved the immediate gratification of popular adulation, Obama wants to leave a legacy. He wants to go down in history as a great president.

But as he said in his first inaugural address, “Greatness is never a given. It must be earned.” It often takes hard times to reveal a great president. Lincoln had the War of Secession; Franklin D Roosevelt the Great Depression and the second World War. One wonders what trials await Obama in his second term.

Four years ago, he said he had “come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics”.

Instead, Congressional Republicans transformed the system of checks and balances bequeathed by the Founding Fathers into a straitjacket to bind the president.

The greatest threat to America is not al-Qaeda or illegal immigrants. It’s not nuclear proliferation, or even the deficit. It’s the inability of Republicans and Democrats to agree on the most basic tasks of governance.

Winning war of attrition

Now Obama appears to be winning the war of attrition with Congressional Republicans. The public places most of the blame for the polarisation and gridlock that marred his first term on Congress. In opinion surveys, Congress rates lower than root canals, cockroaches and lice.

Meanwhile, Obama enjoys his highest poll numbers in three years. Sixty-one per cent of Americans say he is a strong leader.

We’re all a little older and wiser. Obama’s handling of climate change shows how he has evolved. He’s avoided the sturm und drang of an ideological debate, while quietly strengthening the Environmental Protection Agency, promoting innovation, electric cars and clean, alternative energy.

Wrested tax increase

Obama has scored significant victories in the run-up to his second inauguration. On New Year’s Eve, he wrested the first tax increase from Republicans since 1990.

This week, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, one of 25 states that challenged the Affordable Care Act in court, announced she would embrace a key component of the law by expanding Medicaid for the poor.

And yesterday, to escape blame for undermining the US economy, Republicans dropped their conditions for raising the debt ceiling.

Gun control was not an issue in last year’s presidential campaign. But the December 14th massacre of 20 children and six adults in a Connecticut school profoundly altered public opinion, with 54 per cent of Americans asking for stronger gun control, compared to 39 per cent last April. Obama has seized the moment to challenge the National Rifle Association to what it calls “the fight of the century”.

This feels like a propitious juncture in American history, a happy time to say goodbye.

On Monday, I’ll watch Obama take the oath of office on the Capitol steps, with his right hand on the Bibles of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King jnr. His voice will resonate down the Mall, a reminder of what he calls “Dr King’s mighty cadence”. There will be many a knotted throat and teary eye, and we’ll marvel that America produced such a man, and think he is better than the country he represents.

And that is how it should be.

Presidential inauguration: Schedule of events

Barack Obama will be sworn in for a second term as US president this weekend.

Mr Obama’s first term expires officially tomorrow, January 20th, and so, technically, he must be sworn in on that day. For that reason, there will be a private swearing-in ceremony at the White House tomorrow ushering in his second term.

Today, Americans across the country will participate in national day of service projects, celebrating the legacy of civil-rights leader and Nobel laureate Martin Luther King jnr.

On Monday, the president will take the oath of office in the traditional way – in public on Capitol Hill, holding King’s bible, with the oath administered by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The ceremony, and Mr Obama’s inauguration address, will be broadcast live by numerous television channels.

The official theme for the 2013 inauguration is “Faith in America’s Future”, commemorating the US’s perseverance and unity, and marking the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation and the placement of the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome in 1863.

Mr Obama’s address will be followed by the inaugural parade involving members from all branches of the armed forces.

The president will travel by motorcade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the boulevard linking the Capitol and the White House, traditionally leaving his vehicle at some stage to walk and greet wellwishers lining the way.

Many inaugural balls and galas will take place at venues throughout Washington that night and for much of next week.

An estimated 1.8 million people attended the 2009 inauguration of Mr Obama, a record-breaking number for any event in the nation’s capital. A similar number may be expected on Monday.

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