Editorial: The Second Term

Well, yes, the second inauguration is by definition a less shimmering, wonderful and boundlessly hopeful exercise than the first one. But even if we cannot now ignore the knowledge acquired through the previous four years — including that Barack Obama’s vision, regardless of how high-minded and broad-minded it might be, will not be able to transcend the contention, pettiness and calculations of the political world — that doesn’t mean the nation cannot enter his second term without a certain amount of optimism. It’s the same president facing many of the same challenges, but circumstances have changed and he is indisputably a more experienced leader and, we hope, a wiser one. Similar to the opening day of baseball season, there is no reason not to hope for the best — even if that hope is seasoned with a healthy dash of realism.

Although his inaugural speech yesterday eloquently elaborated on themes that Obama has touched upon before — the importance of collective effort in a society that prizes individual enterprise, and the role of social justice in advancing both individual and collective welfare — we would like to single out one specific goal he mentioned as a place where we can invest our hopes for a successful second term.

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity,” Obama said. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”

Global warming was on the agenda of his first term and was among his more notable failures. The failure was not entirely his, of course, but considering it was one of the rare issues in which several prominent Republicans expressed a willingness to work with the White House and accomplish something meaningful, Obama’s inability to capitalize on the situation suggested that the president’s less-than-skillful handling of Congress was a major factor.

So why is there reason to hope that Obama will achieve in his second term what he couldn’t in his first? Presumably, the president will prove more adept at working with the legislative branch, even if that means entrusting more of that task to others in his administration to whom it comes more naturally.

He also has at his disposal an ever accumulating arsenal of evidence of the impact and magnitude of the problem. He has the recent record of climatological calamities, including the severe and record-breaking drought in the Midwest. He can note that the hottest year on record occurred while he occupied the White House. He can point to the fact that the federal government’s expense in extending emergency help to the communities battered by Hurricane Sandy pretty much absorbed all of the annual increase in tax revenue gained in the recent showdown with Congress.

And he can warn that the burden of dealing with future such disasters, which will only become more frequent and severe, will be no less onerous than the budget debt we are heaping on future generations.

“(W)e have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” Obama said yesterday. “ ... My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”

Yes, let us.