Without the pressure of facing re-election in four years,
United States President Barack Obama can afford to be more
deliberate and aggressive in his last term as he seeks to
step over Republican opposition.
He opened his second term with an assertive inaugural address
that offered a clear vision for America, arguing that
preserving individual freedom ultimately requires collective
While he may have four years to fulfil his destiny, political
reality calls for a far shorter time-frame.
Suggestions are he has less than a year to accomplish his
most ambitious goals of gun control, immigration and climate
change - even while dealing with the looming debt ceiling and
another chapter in the fiscal cliff.
Mr Obama dispensed with the post-partisan appeals of four
years ago to outline a forceful vision of advancing gay
rights, showing more tolerance towards illegal immigrants,
preserving the social welfare safety net and acting to stop
''We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing
that failure to do so would betray our children and future
generations,'' he said at the start of eight sentences on the
subject, more than he devoted to any other specific area in
his 18-minute speech.
Mr Obama is talking about climate change again, having
studied the lessons from his first term when he failed to win
the passage of comprehensive legislation to reduce emissions
of the gasses that cause global warming.
This time, the White House plans to avoid such a fight and
instead focus on what it can do administratively to reduce
emissions from power plants, increase the efficiency of home
appliances and have the federal government itself produce
less carbon pollution.
The President's emphasis on climate change drew fire from
conservatives but Mr Obama clearly signalled that he intends
to expand his own role in making a public case for why action
For New Zealand, the implications are wide. New Zealand was a
world leader in adopting climate change as a major policy
issue but the current Government has preferred to this time
let others lead on reducing emissions. If Mr Obama does what
he says he will do, New Zealand will need to follow if it
wants to retain an image of clean and green.
Mr Obama became the first president to mention the word
''gay'' in an inaugural address, equating the drive for
same-sex marriage to the quests for racial and gender
In a direct challenge to Republicans, Mr Obama did not talk
about the end of ''petty grievances'' as he did four years
ago. Instead, he challenged Republicans to step back from
their staunch opposition to this agenda.
Republican Senator John McCain, who was defeated by Mr Obama
four years ago, would have liked to see more on outreach and
''There was not, as I've seen in other inaugural speeches, `I
want to work with my colleagues''.''
Republicans should not, however, have been surprised by Mr
Obama's scripted remarks. The end of last year was dogged by
Republicans barely acknowledging the electoral success of the
president as they blocked until the last minute a resolution
to the ''fiscal cliff''. Now, the debt ceiling is a test of
whether bipartisan attitudes will emerge.
Commentators said the mood of the inauguration felt more
restrained and reflected a more restrained moment in the life
of America. The hopes and expectations that loomed so large
when Mr Obama took office in 2009 have long since faded into
a starker sense of the limits of his presidency.
If the president was wistful, his message was firm. He
largely eschewed foreign policy except to recommend
engagement over war and instead focused on addressing poverty
and injustice at home.
While facing many of the same problems that marred his first
four years, he faces a less dire outlook than he did when he
took office in 2009, at the height of a deep US recession and
world economic crisis - but he still confronts a daunting
array of challenges.