Four years after his historic inauguration, the anniversary of which is Monday, President Barack Obama has done a lot. There also is a lot he wanted to do but didn’t for a variety of reasons.
Yet four years ago, when a record 1.8 million people squeezed into and around the National Mall to witness the first swearing-in of a black U.S. president, there was an unmistakable sense that not only was this a transformative time for the nation but also that the ultra-charismatic Obama would himself be transformative.
This was the “hope and change” president who would transcend the political bickering in Washington and turn rancor into, if not exactly a Kumbaya sing-a-long, at least a more agreeable debate. So much for that.
Was that grand, celebrated inauguration an illusion? Did it just make the high expectations for Obama’s first term all the more unreasonable?
“Is the Pope German?,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said last week. “I was at the inauguration, and some described a coming Nirvana.
THE FIRST TERM
Consider what the president told “Meet the Press” host David Gregory late last month: “Generally if you look at how I've tried to govern over the last four years and how I'll continue to try to govern, I'm not driven by some ideological agenda. I’m a pretty practical guy and I just want to make sure that things work.”
Not exactly the stuff of fantasy. No magic wand, that.
Say what you will about the Tea Party rhetoric and the Mitch McConnell “one-term president” blather and other obstacles that – at times – have prevented Obama from doing things that seemed so, well, magical four years ago. He campaigned then on a platform of “change.”
The Tea Party entered the scene, Republicans won control of the House two years later, and a large number of Americans didn’t so much embrace change as they did a mind-set that they were not to be tread upon under any circumstances.
Then there are the critics who say the president is too aloof and thus unable or unwilling to develop personal relationships. Sabato’s not a critic; he’s an astute observer but not above a playful zinger.
“I’m surprised he hasn’t helped climate change by lowering the temperature a degree or two all by himself,” he says. “That’s a disadvantage. But (even) if he were hail-fellow-well-met, he couldn’t have bridged the enormous gap between the parties in this polarized era.”
Even so, while Obama pointed out last week during his final first-term press conference he believes a lot of Republicans view him as toxic as far as pleasing their constituency and don’t want to appear too cooperative with POTUS lest they anger their base, he also acknowledged his shortcomings in that respect.
“Ultimately, the way we’re going to get stuff done, personal relationships are important,” Obama said. “And obviously, I can always do a better job.
“. . . But my suspicion is, getting the issues resolved that we just talked about, the big stuff, whether or not we get sensible laws passed to prevent gun violence, whether or not America’s paying its bills, whether or not we get immigration reform done, all that’s going to be determined largely by where the respective parties stand on policy and, maybe most importantly, the attitude of the American people.”
ELECTIONS, POLLS, STATS
The attitude of a majority of Americans showed they were willing to re-elect Obama and reject Mitt Romney last November by a 3-point electoral margin. Charles Pierce recently wrote in Esquire that Obama “got re-elected because the other guy convinced America that he wouldn’t much care if people ate grass by the side of the road.”
But win he did, and now? Most polls tend to show a majority of Americans like Obama but nonetheless are skittish about the bigger picture.
A Wall Street Journal-New York Times poll released Friday put his overall approval rating at 52 percent while just 35 percent believe the country is going in the right direction. “If 2009 was all about hope,” co-pollster Peter Hart said in NBC’s reporting of the poll, “2013 is about the ability to cope.”
The unemployment rate continues to shrink in small increments from a high of 10 percent to 7.8 percent, which is where it was when Obama took office, yet more Americans live in poverty now than they did before the financial collapse in the final term of George W. Bush.
On the plus side, Obama would argue, Bin Laden is dead and nearly all U.S. troops are out of Iraq and are on an expedited schedule for a similar draw-down in Afghanistan. That and, of course, the landmark universal health-care passing.
On the minus side, Obama would not argue, is the seemingly endless gridlock about the so-called fiscal cliff and now the so-called debt crisis.
And now, following the mass killings at Aurora and Newtown, he’s embroiled in an assertive, methodical and bitterly divisive bid to buck the NRA and make strident changes to the nation’s gun-control laws.
“But he certainly isn’t the only president who has had to face big problems going into a repeat inauguration,” says Jim Bendat, author of ‘Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of our President 1789-2013.’ “Those things don’t really matter come Monday.”
So what to expect? Smaller crowds, for one thing. Various estimates put the expected crowd at around 800,000. Hotel rooms are available. Instead of the 10 balls in 2009, there will but two – although a public one at the Washington Convention Center is expected to draw 40,000, according to organizers.
Bendat, for one, had planned on being here as a special correspondent for Britain’s Sky News. He worked the previous three inaugurations and had been summoned to cover this one, as well.
“But they sent me an email last week saying something like, ‘We’re downsizing the coverage because it doesn’t seem to be that big, so we’re not flying you out, after all,’ said Bendat, who’s based in Los Angeles and added with a laugh, “So I suppose I’ll be staying out here and being warm.”
Bendat pauses for a couple of seconds before bluntly pointing out that, “It isn’t as big a deal as it (was) is the first time around.” No matter. He always will respect the ritual.
“We’ve got our special day coming up,” Bendat said, “and at least for the one day you’ll find that the differences have been set aside. Everyone will get together and enjoy all the patriotic music and all that before they go back to fighting with one another again.”
Added Sabato: “Ceremony matters in all societies. It is comforting, and signals continuity in a chaotic world.”