The New Obama?

January 22, 2013

In the last few weeks, the general assessment seems to be that President Obama, freed from electoral concerns, is being more aggressive and more progressive. He forced Republicans to accept tax increases for the wealthy, and vowed not to negotiate on the debt ceiling. That narrative continued yesterday, as broadcast commentators saw a new boldness in his Inaugural Address. One talking head predicted that in contrast to his first four years, he would take on the most challenging issues in his second term.

It was a startlingly odd thing to say. I don’t doubt that being past his final election, President Obama may take a different approach to governing. But those who think he avoided challenging issues in the first term must be reading different newspapers than I do. Passing national health care, saving the auto industry, ramping up in Afghanistan and down in Iraq, unleashing drones against Al Qaeda, regulating the financial industry, and pushing social changes like gay rights hardly constitute avoiding challenging issues. There are certainly important issues that didn’t get addressed, but it was not a result of choosing the easy ones.

His negotiating stance then and now-- like everyone else’s in politics and business-- is related entirely to his leverage. When he needed votes from moderate Democrats to pass legislation, or agreement from Republican leaders on taxes or budgets, he had to give up more. When, as in the recent tax debate, he had the procedural upper hand, he pushed his position harder. No amount of aggressive negotiating was going cause Democrats from red states to support a “public option” on health care, for instance.

There are certainly truths in the analysis of this “different Obama” –you can’t help but be more self-assured after four years on the job than at the beginning – but much of the change has to do with political circumstances. Agree with him or not, no one questions that this President has always wanted to achieve big things.

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