Editorial: Obama finally in position to deliver on his vast potential

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President Obama sought to be a leader who would transcend partisan divisions. Photo / AP
President Obama sought to be a leader who would transcend partisan divisions. Photo / AP

Much of Barack Obama's appeal has always resided in his potential to be a transformative leader. That promise flickered only intermittently during his first four years as President of the United States. This week, as he delivers his second inaugural address, the prospects for stronger and bolder leadership over the next four years appear, on the surface at least, to be limited. November's election produced a landscape in Washington much like that beforehand, with a Democrat President and Democrat Senate but a Republican House of Representatives ready to provide a bulwark of opposition to the White House's agenda. Appearances, however, can be deceptive.

During his first term, President Obama sought to be a leader who would transcend partisan divisions, bringing a divided nation together in the process. What he got was a Congress which, thanks to Republican intransigence and his own inexperience, bordered on being dysfunctional. This prompted a noticeably different tone in his election-night victory speech. The President pledged to reach out to Republicans but said that responsibility lay with them, too.

This signalled an intention to use public opinion to shame Congress into action.

This approach has already borne fruit. Mr Obama was able to act decisively to prevent the country tumbling over the so-called fiscal cliff, knowing that polls showed Americans would hold the Republicans responsible for a failure to reach a deal.

Now, he is bringing the same strategy to sweeping gun control measures. Opposition on Capitol Hill from Republicans and some Democrats from conservative states with strong gun traditions means an assault weapons ban, in particular, has little chance of passage. The President knows, however, that popular opinion is firmly on his side following the Connecticut school shootings and other deadly incidents, and calculates Congress will be left with little option.

Speed, as he has noted, is of the essence. Mr Obama must capitalise on the public outrage while his own power, reinforced by a comfortable election victory, is at its height. If he seizes the moment, a tempering of Americans' love affair with guns could well be the major legacy of his second term, just as an overhaul of the country's healthcare was the highlight of his first four years.

The President's other domestic focus will be on jobs. There, he has the encouragement of some modest green shoots that suggest the battered American economy is finally picking up. But, as with most second-term Presidents, he can also be expected to place a major emphasis on foreign policy. That is one area where he cannot be constrained by Congress and where he can put his imprint on history.

During his first term, Mr Obama demonstrated soundness in both judgment and temperament, notably in orchestrating the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But a wide range of challenges remains. Syria is in the grip of civil war, a stand-off with Iran over its nuclear programme is unresolved, the Arab Spring has introduced new complexities, and Islamist extremists in Mali are threatening to destabilise that region. So far, the President has also shown little inclination to become embroiled in the Israel-Palestine issue.

In such matters, a second-term President has the freedom to follow his instincts. He does not have to worry unduly about what the American people think, and how his re-election prospects might be affected. President Clinton used this advantage to devote much of his second term to the Middle East. Mr Obama could make a similar foreign policy impact through the exercise of what he terms US "smart" power. If so, he will come much closer to fulfilling the promise that first propelled him into the White House.

- NZ Herald

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