Federal Politics


Obama's divisive new term

If Barack Obama's second inaugural address as President is anything like the previous 56 speeches it is likely to be soon forgotten.

Inaugural speeches, like state of the union addresses, are a requirement of mandate and tradition. But both tend to be rhetorical wastelands. Unlike a campaign address, which is forged in natural, built-in conflict, an inaugural address has little tension. The point is to craft a message that is inclusive and reflects the values and beliefs of the nation. Rather than rousing words, you get mushy platitudes.

Beyond the natural challenge of writing any compelling inaugural address, there is also the matter of politics and public image. For all the acrimony of US politics, Obama still aspires to be seen as a uniter. When he ran for president in 2008, he pushed what was described as a post-partisan agenda, an ambitious effort to bring together the country's warring political wings and bond Americans in shared purpose.

Of course, things have not quite worked out as Obama hoped. This is less the result of his actions and more the unhinged reaction that his ascendancy has produced in US conservatives. This vitriol is unlikely to be defused, no matter what he says in the speech.

So cultivating the image of a healer-in-chief is a smart piece of image management. It fits the presidential mode of appearing above the fray, and it isolates his opponents but, above all, it is useful because American politics will soon become even more fractured and ironically Obama will be the main instigator.

This is where the image and the reality comes into conflict. On the campaign trail Obama has fostered a post-partisan image while eviscerating his opponents. In 2008, more than half his campaign ads were attacks on John McCain; in 2012 his presidential run was as much about tearing down Mitt Romney as it was presenting a positive agenda. Obama will cloak his second-term agenda in conciliatory language, but in reality it will almost certainly revolve around a set of issues that are among the most divisive in American politics today.


Over the next three months, Republicans and Democrats will meet in a series of fiscal showdowns - first over massive, automatic cuts to government spending from March 1, then the expiration of the resolution funding the US budget on March 27 and finally a return to the extension of the US debt limit in April. All of these promise to be acrimonious confrontations between Obama and Congress in which an extended government shutdown not only seems likely but might be the least-bad scenario.

Then there is immigration reform, at the forefront of Obama's presidential campaign and of crucial importance to the Hispanic voters who turned out for him in record numbers. Immigration splits the Republicans: the Tea Party faction views amnesty for illegal immigrants as a sin, while the more establishment wing knows it must improve its relationship with the Hispanic community to win a national election.

Finally, gun control, an issue where there is surprising unanimity among Americans about the need for reform, but where pro-gun voices maintain a stranglehold on the Republican Party. Anyone who thinks compromise on these issues will be easy or even likely is kidding themselves.

None of this will stop Obama from saying that both parties must find common ground. Just don't bet on it happening. After the festive balls, Washington will return to its old ways - and no inaugural speech will change that.

>> Michael Cohen is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of Live From the Campaign Trail.