Obama's final four years

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 action.

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 climate change.

''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 is necessary.

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 equality.

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 working together.

''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.


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