Unlike most inaugural addresses, President Obama’s first was kind of a bummer. The media expected him to focus on the feel-good story of his racially historic election, but instead he dwelled on national drift and economic collapse, “a sapping of confidence across our land.” And unlike most inaugural addresses, Obama’s first detailed his immediate policy plans for the troubled country:
We will act not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.
My insta-response on TIME’s live-blog was: “This is the weak part of the speech. It’s a lovely laundry list, but it’s a laundry list. Save it for the State of the Union.” But as I later explained in my book about change in the Obama era, the State of the Union would’ve been too late.
That’s because Obama and his transition team were already putting together an $800 billion stimulus bill that would keep all those promises during his first month in office. It did create jobs at a time when the U.S. was shedding 800,000 a month, triggering the biggest quarterly employment improvement in 30 years in the spring of 2009, and it did begin to lay that new foundation for growth, the Change We Can Believe In that Obama had talked about on the campaign trail. It included America’s largest infrastructure investments—not only roads and bridges but a smarter electric grid and digital broadband lines—since Eisenhower. It included unprecedented federal investments in scientific research. It poured an astonishing $27 billion into health information technology that is dragging our medical system into the electronic era. It jump-started a clean energy revolution that has doubled U.S. wind power, increased solar power more than 1000%, financed the nation’s first advanced biofuels refineries, and created a domestic battery industry for electric vehicles from scratch. It launched Race to the Top, arguably the most ambitious education reform initiative of the postwar era. Not to mention its quiet modernization of the New Deal unemployment insurance system, or its dramatically successful new effort to prevent homelessness, or a variety of other reforms.
Admittedly, none of these transformative policies were too original. Obama cares deeply about policy, but he’s not really a policy entrepreneur, and his 2008 campaign was not really about new ideas. It was about change, and the sense that maybe he’d follow through on familiar old ideas that never went anywhere. And he has. I’m sorry to bury the lede, but the story of his first term is that he basically tried to do what he said he would do, and he mostly succeeded. As I’ve written, Obama’s critics often dismissed him as a words guy; he turned out to be a deeds guy.
As Obama prepares to deliver his second inaugural address today, it’s worth recounting some of those deeds. He saved the U.S. auto industry from the brink of extinction. He achieved the Democratic dream of overhauling health care, providing near-universal coverage and insurance protections while starting to rein in costs. He passed the most sweeping financial reforms since the Depression. He got rid of Osama bin Laden, ended the war in Iraq, and is on his way to ending the war in Afghanistan. He allowed gays to serve openly in the military. He raised taxes on the rich and cut taxes for everyone else. His administration has avoided serious scandals, and has ramped up transparency in government operations.
That was basically the 2008 Obama campaign agenda. The reality-deficient right has attacked him as a lawless socialist, while the utopian left has attacked him as a spineless sellout, but very little in his White House record should have been a surprise to anyone who listened to his priorities.
Obama didn’t get everything he wanted. He didn’t get a cap-and-trade bill, although he did pass historic fuel-efficiency and appliance-efficiency standards that will dramatically reduce energy use, in addition to his groundbreaking investments in clean energy. He didn’t pass a comprehensive immigration bill either. And he didn’t keep his promises to end the pettiness and nastiness of Washington politics, to “set aside childish things,” as he put it in his inaugural. Republicans realized that they could make him a promise-breaker by refusing to cooperate, at a time when their increasingly reactionary base was pushing them towards non-cooperation anyway. So Washington is still a political Toys R Us. Obama has only changed its policies, a heavy lift given the relentless obstructionism of his opposition.
So what does Obama do for an encore? Congress already passed most of his 2008 agenda. And let’s face it: He didn’t have much of a 2012 agenda. “Forward” was a nice slogan, but all it meant was “Don’t let Romney and the GOP undo everything I did and restore the Bush era.”
Obama’s first priority in his second term, as in his first term, will be avoiding economic disaster. Unless he can work out a fiscal deal with surly Republicans, they could force the U.S. into an unthinkable default on its obligations. The negotiations could also end in a government shutdown, or drastic short-term spending cuts that could produce a double-dip recession, as they did in austerity-battered Spain and Great Britain. That said, the talks could also produce a bipartisan deal that makes additional progress on the long-term budget deficit while protecting the economic recovery, which would burnish Obama’s legacy. He could even make good on his promise in his first inaugural to end inefficient government programs; except for the F-22 fighter jet, he hasn’t ended much in his first term.
Otherwise, major legislation might be a heavy lift as long as the GOP controls the House and can filibuster Democratic legislation in the Senate. Immigration could be an exception, thanks to Republican eagerness to make nice with Latinos; Senator Marco Rubio is pushing a plan similar to Obama’s, and if the president can pretend he doesn’t like it for awhile it just might become law. Obama’s passionate push for gun control after Sandy Hook could produce some modest bipartisan efforts to expand background checks. There is also some bipartisan interest in tax reforms that could limit inefficient deductions and close egregious loopholes while lowering rates. And it’s at least conceivable that the threat of the EPA regulating carbon pollution could build momentum for some kind of climate bill, the hole in Obama’s Change We Can Believe In policy doughnut.
More likely, though, the lasting policy work of Obama’s second term will be conducted behind the scenes, where bureaucrats will be implementing Obamacare, financial reform, Race to the Top, and other legacy projects from the first term. It’s not sexy. But after some massive achievements in his first term, Obama is well positioned to take advantage of natural forces in his second. If the economy continues to rebound, the deficit should shrink and Obama’s reputation as a turnaround artist should grow; Obama used to tell his advisers it would be very annoying if a President Romney got to claim credit for the recovery. And if the U.S. military continues to reduce its global footprint, the U.S. reputation in the world should continue to revive from the abyss of the Bush years.
Of course, there’s no way to know what surprises the next four years will bring at home or abroad. But if his first four years are any guide, it will make sense to listen to what Obama says he plans to do today. He’ll probably do it.