President Obama assumed office four years ago in the midst of a crisis; the nation’s financial markets were collapsing and taking a large part of the economy with them. Today, Obama launches his second term, and, despite an improving economy, some sense of crisis remains. But this time, the focus is less on Wall Street than on Washington, where Congress itself has struck several blows to the economy, and threatens an even greater one by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, forcing a default of government bonds.
Now, as in 2009, all eyes are on Obama. His inaugural address will be dedicated to capturing the moment in a way that sets the stage for the next four years. Both today and in upcoming weeks, he needs to remind Congress that, while voting one’s conscience is honorable, using procedural tactics to block others from voting their own conscience is not. And threatening to inflict damage on the nation’s economy as a tactic to force concessions from one’s opponents is, on its face, repugnant. It’s a difficult task. But Obama needs to make his arguments in a way that appeals to everyone’s best instincts, and is dedicated less to finger-pointing than to elevating the discussion.
Obama remains well-suited to make this argument. Over the past four years, his strengths and weaknesses have become apparent. He will never be a master dealmaker, despite a manifest willingness to split the difference. Cool and reserved, he doesn’t embrace the role of negotiator; he engages neither in friendly persuasion nor political hardball. He’s most comfortable above the fray. But there’s a lot he can do from that lofty perch — and the voters, in reelecting him under difficult circumstances, showed a clear preference for his statesmanlike manner over either the managerial maneuvering of Mitt Romney or the ideological absolutism of the most vociferous Republican critics in Congress.
Obama’s values are most of America’s. Obama’s policy priorities are favored by most of America. But that’s not enough to move Washington. Hardline conservatives in the House of Representatives, sitting in ultra-conservative districts and fearing challengers in their Republican primaries, will try to block the president at every turn. But their party’s leaders, who must consider the cost of using extreme procedural tactics to advance an unpopular agenda, will have to decide whether to appease the hard-liners or seek compromise with Obama. News late last week that the House GOP was getting behind a three-month extension of the debt ceiling may be an encouraging sign.
The president’s words today will be aimed at the entire country, yet his most important audience consists of those in Congress who will decide whether to seek obstruction or progress. This is a moment to rally the nation — and the government. Obama must know his strength, which is in his power of persuasion. Whenever he stoops to nakedly political tactics, as in his ill-advised New Year’s Eve press conference with “average” Americans to pressure Congress on the fiscal cliff, he loses luster. The inaugural oath-taking, and the opening phase of this new term more generally, is a moment uniquely suited to Obama’s abilities. He should make the most of it.