Will He Consolidate or Buckle?

First published in The Pioneer, January 26, 2013


American presidential elections are unique both in terms of the enormous time and energies consumed as well as the dreams, promises, and hopes raised in the election of the leader of the “free world” – whatever that term means now, when Vladimir Putin rules a “democratic” Russia and China is free to ride high on the advantages accrued through two decades of a “counterfeit” economy. This leader of the free world now seeks to govern a dysfunctional economy, a people divided by race, class, and ideologies, and a political system arcane, complex, and with more dead ends and infinite loops than in an Escher drawing.

Barack Hussein Obama won the election on November 6, 2012, giving him a second term in the White House, defeating a Mormon candidate more plastic than a B-grade Hollywood actress emerging out of the offices of a Beverly Hills surgeon. On Sunday, January 20, 2013 in a private ceremony in the White House (podcast to the whole world) President Obama took the oath of office, and he did so again on the steps of the Capitol, and under blue-grey skies on January 21, 2013. Obama thus became the second president of the United States to take the oath of office four times, historians reminded us. While Franklin D. Roosevelt was actually elected president four times, President Obama, by a strange twist of fate took the oath four times even though he won’t serve more than two terms. During his first inaugural, because the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, flubbed the words and the oath became slightly garbled, and the Republican conspiracy theorists immediately launched a rumor mill about Obama being a Manchurian candidate, the White House insisted that the Chief Justice once again administer the oath the next day in a private ceremony. This time around, because January 20th fell on a Sunday, and the President’s first term ended at noon, he had to be immediately sworn in, though Sunday is an official day of rest. On Monday, with all the pomp, pageantry, glory, twenty-one gun salutes, and tacky tinsel he was sworn in again, in front of hundreds of television cameras beaming the ceremony around the world.

The election campaign was bitter, and the two and a half months intervening between the day the results were announced and his swearing-in were spent bickering and blaming, with his Republican colleagues displaying gamesmanship to the full hilt.

So, what lies ahead in this second term, and will Obama be a more forceful, dynamic, and effective president than he was in the first term? When he first entered office the United States was teetering on the edge of an economic collapse and was fighting long, expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His rhetoric was therefore soaring, and the expectations were too many, emerging as the country was from eight years of mismanagement. The past four years, instead of seeing speedy change, however, were full of bitter fights, with an extremist wing of the Republican Party -- goaded by ugly rhetoric from hooligans who swamp the radio waves – unwilling to give an inch, and thwarting every move by the President. A Black man in the White House was anathema to them, and his attempts to steer the economy away from the dangerous shoals it was close to, to repair the health care system, to end the war in Iraq, and to change the culture in Washington, DC were all stymied. The health care bill was passed with not one Republican voting in support of it. Lucky, he had a Democratic majority in the House then. Soon that majority was lost, and we entered the era of a no-holds-barred attempt by the Republican Party to defeat and demonize the President.

The Republicans are still a majority, though a slightly diminished majority in the House, but have enough votes in the Senate to block any bill or load them with poison pills. Except for those whose official duties made them stay in the capital for the weekend, other Republicans left town to scheme new ways to slow down if not stop the re-energized President. Reflecting that reality, Mr. Obama avoided the lyrical and the sentimental, and focused on being firm and determined in his inaugural address. For the “no new taxes” die-hards, he had a message: “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers. Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune”. The divide between the rich and the poor is stark, and has grown in the past twenty years, in a nation that still attracts the largest number of immigrants. President Obama needs to force the reluctant Republicans’ hands on new taxes while at the same time getting some of the Democrats to agree to stop fully subsidizing the health and welfare of well-to-do retirees who are tottering into their nineties aboard European river cruises.

The world continues to be a dangerous place, and American foreign policy has to be crafted more carefully in this multi-polar, multiply-distressed world. The Chinese want to poke the eyes of the Japanese, and Benjamin Netanyahu wants to thumb his nose at the world. Syria is collapsing, and the Arab Spring has lost some of its struts. India is leaderless, rudderless and self-defeating, and its truant neighbor still has nukes that can go on the loose if push comes to shove. Africa, where it is still governable, is now Chinese territory, and where it is not, it is a standoff between the extremist Christians and the fundamentalist Muslims. America’s export to the “dark continent” now seems mostly rabid, evangelical preachers teaching the Africans how better to hate gays. Barack Obama therefore does not have many good cards in his hands to play at this table. One only hopes the alignment of the planets are strong enough to slow down this Earth spinning out of control and give the president some respite.

The environment, population growth, dwindling resources, greedy bankers, and rising seas all seek the attention of the president for the next four years. And yes, there are guns, lots of them in these United States of America, and legislation curbing the sale and possession of the biggest and baddest of them will come at a steep price. Yet, in the shiny faces of the 600,000 or so gathered on the mall in Washington, DC, there was hope again, and there was yearning for some health, wealth, and happiness.

But Obama is not a political animal… he aspires to be a statesman, and in a world of crass politics, he has had a difficult time dealing with prima donnas and players with sharp elbows, and he will most probably continue to have a difficult time with the likes of the “Republican leadership”. One wonders if he will leave a legacy immediately discernible, but as the first Black President, he has proved to be a decent man, indeed even a brave man, though somewhat tired and aloof at times. He chose a fine poet to read at this second inaugural, and we may end with the plaintive notes from the pen of Richard Blanco, who also proffered a namaste to the world:

“We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always -- home, always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop and every window, of one country -- all of us -- facing the stars hope -- a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it – together”

(Ramesh Rao is Professor of Communication Studies at Longwood University and Member, Executive Council, of the Hindu American Foundation. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and not those of any organization or institution he is affiliated with.)

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