Column: The Second Inauguration Represents Triumph of Experience Over Hope
The reviewing stands are up, the buildings festooned with bunting. But on the eve of President Obama’s second inauguration, the city’s mood feels more somber than celebratory, even for those who wanted to see Obama re-elected. The thrill of 2008 has yielded to the frustration of 2012. This inauguration represents the triumph of experience over hope. Perhaps the sense of letdown is unavoidable. The second time is never as exciting. A presidency on the doorstep of a first term is promise unmarred by performance. A re-elected president arrives with baggage and scars.
Still, the gap between thrill and deflation feels particularly yawning this year. Not because Obama had a failed first term — he didn’t, not in my assessment and not, I think, by any objective measure. He became the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to be elected twice with a majority of the popular vote. In the most recent Gallup Poll, the president’s approval rating was seven points above the average during his first term. So why the dimmed enthusiasm? Because four years ago Democrats were so relieved to shake off eight years of George W. Bush.
Because the election of an African-American president was so inspiring.
But mostly because hopes then were so inflated — hopes of bridging partisan divides and changing the ways of Washington.
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” the president said in his inaugural address. “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” How naive — how sad — this sounds in retrospect. Just a few weeks later, after the stimulus plan had passed the House without a single Republican vote, the president was asked at his first news conference if he had underestimated the difficulty of changing Washington.
“Oh, I don’t think I underestimated it,” Obama replied. “It’s going to take time to break down some of those bad habits.” He cited “a series of overtures” to Republicans — meeting with both Republican caucuses, putting three Republicans in his Cabinet, inviting Republicans to the White House to discuss the stimulus bill. “All those were not designed simply to get some short-term votes,” Obama said. “They were designed to try to build up some trust over time. ... And I think that as I continue to make these overtures, over time hopefully that will be reciprocated.”
I repeat: How naive — how sad — this sounds in retrospect. The president who stood in the East Room Monday for the final news conference of his first term asserted that House Republicans “have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat.” So much for the end to conflict and discord.
What went wrong? Obama is partly to blame. Initial outreach notwithstanding, he was aloof. He failed to build relationships — even with fellow Democrats. Worse, at key moments, he negotiated ineptly; he ducked repeatedly when he should have led. The candidate whose rhetorical prowess catapulted him to national prominence proved particularly inept in office at summoning public support.
But also: Obama’s animating vision of a transported politics was never realistic. As a general matter, vows to change Washington are destined for the dustbin of history. And in this specific moment, no Democratic president would have fared much better against an implacable Republican opposition. Lyndon Johnson did not master the Senate in the age of the Tea Party.
That this outcome was predictable does not make it any less disappointing. And the ferocity of Republican animus toward Obama and the party’s willingness to push issues such as the debt ceiling to the brink, and possibly beyond, have been astonishing even to realists — or cynics — like me. Failing to recapture either the White House or the Senate in 2012 may have had a chastening effect on the GOP’s more sober figures. But whether Republicans are capable of trickle-down sanity remains an open question. The current chest-thumping over the debt ceiling and related cliffs suggests not. Inaugurations reflect the apex of democracy, the peaceful transfer or continuation of power. But this one occurs at a moment when our democracy seems incapable of fixing the serious problems the nation confronts. It has been a long four years since that joyous moment on the Mall. The next four, I fear, will feel even longer.