Of all the lessons Barack Obama learned during the past four years, the most important may be his realization that the presidency is all about salesmanship.
It took Mr. Obama the better part of his first term to figure that out. He devoted extensive efforts to developing complex policy solutions – from an unprecedented stimulus bill to health-care reform – but failed to communicate their meaning to the American public.
“He forgot, as Ronald Reagan never did, the sales aspect of the presidency,” noted John Kenneth White, a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington. “If people don’t know what your policy is, it gives the opposition lots of opportunity to define that policy for the public, true or not.”
The second-term Obama will not, by all accounts, repeat that mistake. Having watched Republicans sway public opinion by caricaturing his policies as freedom-crushing prescriptions for decline, Mr. Obama has decided he has had enough. Watch for a more strident President to emerge in term two, one with a better sense of the art of the sale.
That was already apparent as Mr. Obama got out in front of Republicans on the debt ceiling this month, using public appearances to explain that the required increase in the government’s $16.4-trillion (U.S.) borrowing limit was needed to pay for spending Congress had already authorized. It would be irresponsible for Republicans to balk.
The gambit appears to have worked, for now. On Friday, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives promised to pass a three-month increase in the debt ceiling in order to engage the White House in longer-term budget negotiations. The GOP had been refusing to raise the debt ceiling without matching spending cuts.
Americans got another view of their newly assertive President last week as Mr. Obama unveiled the most sweeping gun-control proposals in a generation. In addition to major measures requiring action by Congress, Mr. Obama also signed 23 executive actions to curb gun violence, enduring criticism from the right that he had overstepped his authority.
“I intend to use whatever weight this office holds,” Mr. Obama said on Wednesday. “I will put everything I’ve got into this.”
Gun control was nowhere on Mr. Obama’s to-do list on election night. But the massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Connecticut last month moved him to act. And there may be other issues that, by the force of events, jump unexpectedly on to the second-term agenda.
They would have to compete with immigration reform. The President’s top domestic policy priority – besides the economy – involves providing a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million, largely Hispanic, illegal immigrants.
Mr. Obama will be up against Tea Party criticism that the plan amounts to amnesty, encouraging a flood of new illegal immigrants across the southern border. But after the trouncing their party took among Hispanic voters in November, Republicans, led by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, are showing signs that they, too, are serious about reform.
“Comprehensive immigration reform is good for both parties,” Prof. White said. “It gives Obama a singular achievement. For Republicans, if they go along with it, it would take immigration off the table and they might get a hearing from Hispanics on other issues.”
A major unfinished agenda item from the first term is climate change. Legislation died in the Senate and Mr. Obama never sought to revive it. But Hurricane Sandy, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement of Mr. Obama as the best presidential candidate to take on climate change, could provide the impetus for a new bill.
Mr. Obama still sees American industrial renewal through the lens of a low-carbon economy. But he is realistic about the prospects for climate-change legislation as long as Republicans control the House. Another devastating weather event may lead him to abandon his caution.
In foreign policy, traditionally a fertile sphere of activity for second-term presidents, Mr. Obama faces major tests with Iran, Syria, Egypt and, now, Mali. They, and no doubt countless other crises, will challenge his preference for non-intervention.
“One thing he seems to be intent on doing, and which would be a major triumph, is ending all the wars and not starting any more,” explained American University historian Allan Lichtman. “The hardest thing to do is to resist going to war.”
Monday’s inaugural speech should provide clues, largely absent during the election campaign, about where Mr. Obama hopes to take the country in the next four years. Will he seek to cement his legacy on health care or broaden his ambitions to become the truly transformational president he once envisioned?
Recalling the old adage that presidents usually only get one line in history, University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato wrote in a pre-inauguration commentary: “Is President Obama’s line already written, that he was our first African-American President? Or is there something broader and bigger? Obama’s second inaugural address is a prominent opportunity to stake his claim.”