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Inauguration 2013: How Obama is different from four years ago (+video)

Inauguration 2013 is different from the 2009 version in many ways – not least the president himself. He's learned some tough political lessons, but he still seems to have ambitious plans.

By Staff writer / January 20, 2013

The shadow of President Obama is cast on a wall as he leaves a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington after the Senate Finance Committee voted to approve his health-care bill in this file photo. Obama will look to expand his legacy in his second term.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/FIle

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WASHINGTON

Four years ago, on the eve of his first inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama faced enormous challenges and sky-high expectations.

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Monitor correspondent Liz Marlantes discusses President Obama's second term, as Inauguration Day approaches.

The economy was on the verge of collapse, and the nation was embroiled in two wars. But Americans were infused with optimism that the young senator from Illinois, about to make history as the nation’s first black president, would deliver on his promise of transformational, post-partisan leadership.

Mr. Obama took office with a Gallup job approval rating in the stratosphere, near 70 percent. Now he embarks on his second term with the public stature of a mere mortal – job approvals averaging in the low 50s, up from first-term lows that had dipped below 40 percent – and even starker polarization.

“Hope and change” have given way to cold-eyed realism. Obama’s big Democratic majorities in Congress – the one-party rule that allowed him to pass the biggest stimulus bill in history, auto and financial industry bailouts, and sweeping health-care reform – are long gone, in part precisely because of all those big measures.

But as circumstances have changed, so too has Obama. Having entered office without much executive experience, he has learned by doing. Initially, his impulse was to throw out broad concepts and let his Democratic allies in Congress fill in the legislative details. After the midterm shellacking, and the tea-party fueled Republican takeover of the House, the next two years were marked by gridlock and brinkmanship – and an ugly reelection campaign.

Now Obama is playing a different game.

“He’s had a steep learning curve, but I think he’s learned a bit about how to negotiate,” says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “He’s tougher now.”

Instead of trying to make nice with congressional Republicans, his team has made clear, Obama will work the opposition from the outside, traveling out into the country more and playing to public opinion. His tech-savvy campaign operation, Obama for America, has morphed into Organizing for Action, an effort to turn his millions of supporters into a digital army that “will work to turn our shared values into legislative action,” as Obama wrote in an e-mail to supporters.  

After the frustrations of trying to negotiate with House Speaker John Boehner (R), Obama now seems set to use the bully pulpit to exploit congressional Republicans’ extraordinarily low public approval. Already, the House Republicans’ decision Friday not to extract concessions in exchange for raising the debt ceiling for three months represents a bow to public opinion.

But there are two more “fiscal cliffs” to come on which Obama is in a weaker position – the late-February deadline for deep spending cuts known as the “sequester” and the end of federal spending authority on March 27. Obama also faces longstanding pressure to put entitlement cuts on the table.

The Republican game may be to tie Obama down, as the Lilliputians did to Gulliver, with all the fiscal cliffs. But Obama is still dreaming big. Many agenda items remain from the first term, including immigration reform, climate change, and energy.

“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” he said after his Nov. 6 election victory.

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