ABC The Drum
Fresh from his election victory, Barack Obama has thrown caution to the wind and outlined a sweeping, progressive policy agenda. Will the high-risk strategy pay off, asks
President Barack Obama's second inauguration speech was a final boarding call. The message was clear: "Get on board or get out of my way."
After being frustrated by Congress for the past two years, this speech outlined a sweeping progressive policy agenda. It was perhaps apt that he delivered his speech with his back towards Congress and facing up the mall towards the statues of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
Obama wants to be a transformational president. In his first term, he tried to achieve this through the means that come most naturally to him: compromise and negotiation. This failed.
He accomplished his major legislative achievements between 2009 and 2010 while the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives. After the Republicans seized control of the House in 2010, Obama's policy achievements have been extremely modest.
Compromise and negotiation failed. Obama has said that his greatest surprise during his first term was the extent to which his opponents were willing to score political points against him at the expense of the country.
As Michael Lewis wrote, after being granted unprecedented access to the president: "He thought the other side would pay a bigger price for inflicting damage on the country for the sake of defeating a president."
The tenor of his second inauguration speech was significantly different to his first, back in 2009. In 2009, the global financial crisis was at its most severe. The collapsing economy had defined the 2008 presidential campaign. GIs were still dying in Iraq. And the threat of international terrorism was still firmly on people minds. The mood of the 2009 speech was sombre, if not gloomy, and it focused on reconciliation with his political opponents — many of whom he then invited to join his cabinet.
This speech was far more optimistic. "A decade of war is now ending; an economic recovery has begun," the president proclaimed. "My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together."
There was little in the way bipartisanship in this speech. For sure, there were plenty of mentions of doing things "together"; indeed, this word could have been the dominant word of the speech. But, unlike four years ago, "together" no longer means bipartisanship, compromise and negotiation. Now, "together" means Obama's ways or step aside.
It is now clear that after a reasonably moderate and cautious first term, Obama is planning an ambitious and sweeping progressive agenda on climate change, social security, immigration, voting rights and gun control.
The clock is ticking. He has a lot he wants to achieve. "For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay," Obama said. "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate." If Republicans seek to obstruct his agenda, he will now try to smash through rather than enter into long drawn-out discussions.
This is an extremely risky strategy. Following an election, politicians frequently come unstuck due to self-serving bias. Elected politicians frequently attribute their victory to their own personal skills and message. They believe that the country is behind them and that those obstructing them are inevitably on the losing side. (In contrast, those who lose elections normally attribute their loss to structural reasons, like competing against incumbency, or the economy or natural security, etc.).
Self-serving bias in this case could derail Obama's second term. This is for two reasons.
First, Washington, DC, has not changed. The House of Representatives is still controlled by the Republicans, many of whom are either Tea Partiers or are frightened that if they don't toe the Tea Party's line, then the Tea Party will run their own candidates against them in the 2014 Republican primaries. In the Senate, the Democrats do not have the supermajority necessary for overcoming a Republican filibuster.
Even a Democratic revival in the 2014 midterm elections is unlikely to dramatically change Obama's fortunes, as any gains will be weighed against him entering the "lame duck" period of his presidency.
Second, the country itself is not fully on board the Obama policy train. America is still a country deeply divided. Polling on any one of Obama's big policy objectives, as alluded to in Monday's speech, will return roughly equally divided for those in favour and against.
One of two lessons could have been taken away from Obama's first term. One, that America is no longer capable of doing big things. Change must be gradual, hard fought, and frequently politically costly to both sides. Or, two, facing walls on all sides, a sledgehammer approach is needed. A grand, sweeping policy agenda that transcends the normal Washington political bickering is the only way to get things done.
Although there is probably more evidence that the former is right, Obama has opted for the second strategy. I hope this was after careful consideration and deliberation, and not an example of self-serving bias.
This article was originally published at ABC The Drum