Pivot to America

Obama's second term may be about recognising the limits to US power in a changing world

Second term presidencies in the United States always begin with great expectations and soaring rhetoric from the re-elected leader. Unburdened by the compulsions of re-election, it is said, the president is free to pursue big ideas and secure his legacy in the White House.

Barack Obama, sworn-in again on Sunday, is deeply aware of the political opportunities and limitations of the second term. On the hopeful side, Obama is presiding over what might be called a transition to, arguably, a Democratic majority in the US.

His convincing victory over his Republican rival Mitt Romney last November is said to be rooted in the changing demographic profile of America and the emergence of a coalition of urban middle classes, working people, minorities, and women. The earlier Republican majority built around suburban populations, rural populations, small businesses, the religious right, social conservatives appears to be unravelling.

Liberal supporters of the president are pressing Obama to go all guns blazing to crack irrevocably the Republican coalition and consolidate the emerging Democratic majority. Obama, however, sees the dangers of over-reach in the second term and the difficulties of translating an electoral majority into policy hegemony.

His predecessor, George W. Bush, could not convert the Republican control of the White House and the majority in both Houses of the Congress — produced by the 2004 elections — into support for reforming the US social security system. Bush's attempt to change the immigration laws produced a backlash in the Republican Party.

Worse still, most second-term presidencies begin to lose energy quickly and get mired in controversy. Bush was hobbled by the failure of the American occupation in Iraq, Bill Clinton by the Monica Lewinsky affair, and Ronald Reagan by the Iran-Contra scandal, to recall the most recent second-term presidencies.

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