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Obama needs to rebuild the faith

Date

The Canberra Times

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After swearing his oath of office on two Bibles - one owned by Abraham Lincoln, the other by Martin Luther King - US President Barack Obama delivered his second inauguration speech, a powerful compilation of promises and soaring rhetoric that threw out a challenge to his conservative opponents. But even as he set out his agenda for the next four years, the reality of Mr Obama's situation is abundantly clear.

While his election as the first black president was historic and greeted with fitting rapture, his first term was marked by anticlimax and compromise. Among ordinary Americans, even Mr Obama's supporters, expectations for his second term must necessarily be dampened by what they have seen over the past four years.

A collective loss of faith that he could walk on water could go a long way towards explaining the smaller crowd in front of the US Capitol building for his speech this week. Blocked by the Republicans, the proposal for a carbon tax to combat climate change was dumped and the US came close to a fiscal cliff. However, Mr Obama pushed his health reforms and has begun to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan.

His speech barely mentioned foreign policy issues but, with an eye to his legacy, he told the nation its journey would not be complete ''until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law''. The President repeatedly used the phrase ''We the people'' - from the US constitution's preamble - as a key theme for his speech. His agenda for a second term includes gun control, economic management, climate change and gay rights. To achieve that, he called for unity, an unequivocal and perhaps desperate plea to his opponents to allow him to govern, in the national interest. How that challenge is answered will mark the tone of this President's final term and shape his entry in history.

He must cut debt, which has been described as the greatest strategic threat facing the country. He managed to persuade the Republicans to pull back from the fiscal cliff but Mr Obama must do more than that, and show real leadership to balance the books, probably in the form of ''tough love'', and thereby re-establish confidence in US economic management. Without that, America's capacity to offer leadership is seriously weakened.

The world looks to the leader of the most powerful nation to take the lead in many issues, such as Iran's nuclear threat. In this role as global sheriff, Mr Obama has a responsibility to deliver more than grand rhetoric. In the Middle East, notably, he needs to engage.

Australia will watch carefully as its major ally tries to repair its economy and pushes forward with its ''pivot'' of foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region, recognising the area is the global economy's new centre of gravity. Mr Obama's new-found support for marriage equality has won praise from advocates in Australia but it remains to be seen if his words are matched with action. Same for climate change. On gun control and economic management, Australia is already streets ahead.

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