Obama: Greyer, wiser, but with a chance to claim ‘Yes, We Did’

“The problem is that the government doesn’t fear the people,” he began saying to another hotel guest in line to use the waffle maker.

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“The people should not fear the government. The government should fear the people. And this government is the most radical government we’ve ever had…”

Across the car park another hotel was hosting a gun show. There, fear was again a strong theme. A mile or so down the road, toward a small town that has a growing population of artists, musicians, and gay couples rather than camouflage-wearing gun enthusiasts, a huge roadside billboard splashed a photo of President Obama with the message: “Vote for Obama? Embarrassed yet?”

A few hours after this Pennsylvania breakfast conversation, President Obama was sworn in for his second term in a quiet ceremony in front of his family. It is fair to say that not everyone in America is a fan of the President. When the official website of the Republican Party pitches an opportunity to “help stop the radical Obama agenda” you can bet that political divisions across the US will continue to be just as deep as the past four years.

Not that there’s anything necessarily different about that. Polarised positions ran through Bill Clinton’s term in office and were at fever pitch during George W. Bush’s tenure that launched two major wars and oversaw a financial meltdown that wrecked global economies.

Obama’s second term will be about making his place in history. He begins the next four years with two lists: a “must-do” and a “can-do”.

The must-do includes leading the line in fixing America’s debt problem, immigration reform, and making sure Iran doesn’t become an out-of-control mess. Regardless of who is in office, these are issues that have to be tackled (although Mitt Romney had a very different way to approach those issues).

The can-do list are agenda items Obama can make his legacy. Climate change, energy, gun control in the wake of the Newtown shootings, and issues that are important to the coalition of minorities that got him reelected can now be pushed through with strong leadership.

There’s no guarantee that, even with no reelection campaign to face, Obama will be successful with any Big Ideas. Congress faces elections in 2014 and will be hesitant to pass any decisions that jeopardise its own chances of reelection.

As negotiations over the fiscal cliff demonstrated, the Republican Party intends to play the next four years as stubbornly as the last.

Obama’s push for gun control legislation – enabled by pursuing an executive order that does not require congressional approval – was criticised by the Republican Party as a “power grab”.

“He paid lip service to our fundamental constitutional rights but took actions that disregard the second amendment and legislative process,” said Republican Party Chairman Reince Preibus.

“Representative government is meant to give voice to the people.”

Preibus is not wrong on his last line. Obama now has the opportunity to lead the country in the direction those who elected him for a second term would prefer. Obama is also four years wiser – as well as greyer – than he was in 2008.

He will still face battles and opposition to his ideas – from rural Pennsylvania to Congress – but has enough backing from Preibus’ “voice of the people” (even if they are not Preibus’ people) to leave office in 2017 claiming “Yes We Did”. Even if that’s with the caveat “more or less”.