Originally Published 2013-01-24 00:00:00 Published on Jan 24, 2013
Even as the United States tries to retract from being labelled the global policeman, it still cannot ignore the calls that come from being the sole superpower in the world, notwithstanding debates about its relative decline.
Obama's second innings: Reinventing America
If Americans were expecting an inaugural speech calling for bipartisanship in Washington, they were in for a surprise. President Barack Obama, upbeat from his re-election, against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, was in a combative mood. He went in for a full-frontal exposition of a progressive and liberal America, taking the fight right to the doors of the conservatives. Though Obama largely reiterated and reemphasised what he had said during the campaign, he did so with more conviction and candour, despite the fact that he has to steer through the political polarisation in Washington for the rest of his second term.

The courage in the speech came from the awareness that he is personally popular in America (especially among his "rainbow coalition" of supporters - African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, women and young voters - who saw him through a fiercely fought election last year), notwithstanding the fate of his policies, and the knowledge that he no longer has to face another re-election. Despite some respite from the fiscal cliff stopwatch, the ballooning national debt still breathes down Washington's neck, questioning the sustainability of social entitlement programmes and the healthcare system in the United States. On these issues of critical importance, the two parties stand on diametrically opposite poles of the ideological divide and Obama's speech gave no indication that he was going to relent from his liberal positions.

Having spent his first term running into the Republican wall of opposition, Obama seems to have forsaken all pretence of easy consensus and bipartisanship emerging in Washington. According to John Cassidy at the New Yorker, Obama "realizes that the only way to succeed in Washington is to lay down some markers and then mobilize"one's"supporters and the public at large, to get them enacted."

Coming to the specifics of the speech, he stood his ground that America needs not radical individualism, but individualism tinged with collective action, that government was never the cure of all ills but at the same time, a co-existence of government and individual enterprises was at the heart of America's progress. He stressed on the need for an America that cares equally for all and in doing so, he made history by talking of the struggle for gay rights, in the same breath, as the struggles by African-Americans and American women, besides including the need for immigration reform.

In pursuit of equitable growth for all, he stressed the need to "harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher." He also used the occasion to reemphasize his negation of the conservative idea that America had become a nation of "takers". He said, "The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

Though the need for stricter gun control laws was noted only indirectly in a reference to the safety of children in places like Newtown (Connecticut), Obama has already build a momentum against the destructive gun culture by putting a comprehensive plan to tighten gun laws, despite vehement propaganda against it from the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA).

He also chose to give centre-stage to the issue of climate change saying that, "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." He espoused the idea that Americans, while holding firm on the founding principles, should be flexible enough to accept the challenges that comes with changing times.

Rhetoric clearly is the centrepiece of any inaugural speech, but embedded within those flowery words, is also the picture of the times one lives in, the kind of challenges America faces at that juncture. So, what does the speech really portend about Obama's second term, which in presidential history is usually associated with legacy-building? Even as domestic issues overwhelms politics in Washington, and a rising of streak of isolationism defines public perception, America has never been and will never be able sidestep its "manifest destiny" of a country more engaged than any other power in world history.

Obama's remark that "a decade of war is now ending" and that "an economic recovery has begun" clearly reflects a war-weary America that has withdrawn from Iraq, and is spending sleepless nights to engineer a face-saving exit from the Afghan quagmire. "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war," he added. The public acrimony against these wars and America's external manifestation in general, is closely linked to the recession that hit the country towards the end of the Bush era and continues to haunt the Obama Administration into his second term.

America's baby boomers' generation is retiring, increasing their dependence on government care and thus increasing the demands on social entitlement programmes, which, along with the defence budget, are seen as a major source of the national debt. Any solution to the national debt problem demands a major balancing on these national expenditures with their major constituencies in the United States.

Just how America responds to new demands for better fiscal management will, to a great extent, determine what kind of a power the US evolves into, which, in turn, will greatly influence global order in the 21st century. Even as Obama talked about the centrality of "engagement" in American foreign policy, one of America's primary challenge of dealing with the Iranians persist, and as hot-headed rhetoric in Israel continues advocating a military strike against Iran's nuclear installations, Iran will remain a test case of Obama's engagement diplomacy.

As a result of the economic crunch, America faces the challenge of trying to balance its foreign policy objectives and the resources available, and one of the cornerstones of Obama's presidency has been his rebalancing strategy towards Asia, aka the 'Asia Pivot'. Embedded within that policy is the challenge of managing China's rise and cementing and building alliances in Asia-Pacific. Even as the United States tries to retract from being labelled the global policeman, it still cannot ignore the calls that come from being the sole superpower in the world, notwithstanding debates about its relative decline. Obama clearly laid out such a scenario when he said, "America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation."

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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