The Second Term

It was reported that on the eve of his first Inaugural, in contrast to the buoyancy of his supporters, President-elect Barack Obama’s mood was subdued.

More fully informed by then than most Americans, he appreciated the gravity of the economic crisis (and whatever “eyes-only” top-secret crises he was about to inherit). He realized the distinct possibility that not only would he not be able to deliver on his promise of positive change, but that he would preside over a national catastrophe comparable to the Great Depression. Yes, We Can! was already tempered in his mind by Maybe We Can’t!

President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joseph Biden were sworn in officially on Sunday, a day before the great pomp on Monday, due to a calendrical quirk by which his first term expired a day before the formal inauguration. It symbolizes the dual nature of high office: private reality versus public show; the hushed counsels and sleepless nights over crises which defy solution versus the soaring rhetoric of hope and confidence.

Not that we are against hope or the rhetoric of hope. The former is an ineradicable part of the human condition; the latter is the quintessence of democracy. Doom is not a party platform; despair is not a legislative program.

But overblown rhetoric based on false hope and naiveté are dangerous. They pave the way for disillusionment and cynicism. As the saying goes, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disillusioned idealist.

Four years later, expectations are lower, and the change is quantifiable. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2008, 51 percent of middle-class Americans said they thought their children’s standard of living would be higher than theirs was at the same age; by 2012, that optimism had shrunk to 43 percent. On the other hand, pessimism rose: whereas four years ago, 19 percent thought life would be harder for their children, by 2012, 26 percent thought so. Only about 11 percent of middle-class Americans are very optimistic about the nation’s long-term economic future; 44 percent are somewhat optimistic; 45 percent describe themselves as pessimistic.

Another indication is in the scale of the inaugural pomp. Organizers expect fewer than half the 1.8 million people who flocked to Washington to see Obama become president last time.

There is, of course, good reason for a more sober attitude. But not one bereft of hope.

The debate over the national debt and other economic issues continues to put a ceiling on optimism for the foreseeable future; but that doesn’t mean nothing can be done to ease the plight of jobless and discouraged Americans. Millions of “shovel-ready” jobs are, as Obama himself came to ruefully admit, a fantasy; but bringing unemployment figures down another point or two in the near future is certainly doable.

Post-partisanship was a myth shattered early in his first term. In fact, he turned out to be an unusually partisan president, little willing or able to cooperate with a contentious Republican party. But if the utopia of bilateral problem-solving was unrealizable, at least the combatants were able to provide us with brief ceasefires in partisan warfare when “the cliff” was the unacceptable, grim alternative. Perhaps they will succeed in expanding that beachhead of sanity.

In foreign policy, the field is, as always, fraught with danger. Obama has kept his promises to withdraw from Iraq and scale down in Afghanistan. Iran has not gone away, though, and a solution, military or diplomatic, cannot be avoided beyond this year, if Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s calculation of the “red line” is correct.

We can hope that there will be no return to the ill-considered tilt toward the Arab countries that marked the early days of the first Obama administration. And that whatever personal differences persist between the American and Israeli leaders will be subsumed in the imperatives of the alliance.

If an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not possible at this stage, some progress on gun control at home is a worthy goal.

It calls to mind the accession to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, under circumstances of even greater crisis — indeed, of national trauma. On November 26, 1963, just four days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the new president was conferring with advisors on a speech he would give the next day to a joint session of Congress. There was a question of how much stress to place on civil rights, which had been blocked by implacable opposition from the South during Kennedy’s term. One senior advisor told him that a president shouldn’t spend his time on lost causes, no matter how worthy they might be.

Johnson’s reaction was: “Well, what’s the presidency for, anyway?”

President Obama evidently believes that, among other things, that is what the presidency is for; bringing these senseless shootings under control is a “lost cause” worth fighting for.

During the swearing-in ceremony on Sunday, the Obamas’ younger daughter, Sasha, recalled a problem four years earlier when a garbling of the oath by both her father and Chief Justice Roberts forced them to repeat it at the White House the next day.

This time, it went smoothly. “Good job, Daddy,” Sasha said.

“I did it!” he replied, only to have her quip, “You didn’t mess up.”

Let’s hope the second term goes as smoothly as the swearing-in.