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It has been a characteristic of two-term presidencies in the United States that the first term is frenetic, full of policy adventures and misadventures, and the second term is much more sedate. In many cases, the broad agenda is set in the first term; in the second, the president struggles to fulfil it and secure his legacy. But, even given this, Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech was worryingly content-free. Beyond several messages to Republicans in the US Congress and their stubborn aversion to big government, Mr Obama had little to offer that was new. After all, the looming negotiations on the fiscal cliff, Mr Obama’s biggest immediate challenge, and arguments over welfare and infrastructure spending versus tax cuts for the rich and smaller government have been a familiar trope for the four years of his first term.
Mr Obama’s supporters could claim that he achieved much of his 2008 agenda in the first term. He managed to put in place a form of universal health insurance, albeit heavily diluted from the original scheme. He concluded the hunt for Osama bin Laden, a cathartic moment for many Americans. Employment started reviving — it is not clear if Mr Obama’s policies had anything to do with that, but perceptions matter. Yet these are incomplete and limited victories, and Mr Obama can hardly rest on these laurels as much as the sonorous rhetoric of his speech suggested. There’s the question of foreign policy, for example. Sure, he spoke of America being “the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe” and supporting democracy from “Asia to Africa”; these are unexceptionable statements US presidents have made from Dwight Eisenhower onwards. Do they mean anything on the ground? Can, for instance, China, with whom Mr Obama does not enjoy the best of relations despite some initial overtures, draw any conclusions from his speech? Or Israel, now that Binyamin Netanyahu has won another term?
Admittedly, few politicians fulfil the hopes and aspirations with which they enter office. But Mr Obama has done worse than most. His appeal, self-consciously promoted, always lay in the fact that he was not part of Washington’s machine politics. Indeed, in his first term, several insubstantial aspects of the atmosphere, his creative use of social media, his donor base built from individuals and his considered non-conservative politics, and his apparent sincerity made his claim as a change agent credible to many worldwide. It had become apparent that the challenges faced by the United States – its declining infrastructure, its divided and sclerotic government, its growing inequality, its overreach overseas – could not be dealt with by a conformist machine politician. But if the run-up to Mr Obama’s second term is anything to go by, he appears to have reverted to type; accepting corporate donations was one sign, and ever more cynical rhetoric to cover up the absence of a serious agenda is another.