by Jules Witcover

The inauguration of a re-elected president should signify the country's satisfaction with his first term, and anticipation of more of the same leadership that has brought about that second term. Barack Obama embarks on his presidential reprise in the hope among his supporters of a tougher and more confrontational leadership over the next four years.

Nevertheless, of the last seven presidential repeaters, arguably only two -- Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 -- undertook another four White House years with the wide public approval of their first terms that their landslide victories seemed to convey.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson, not technically re-elected, swamped a hapless Barry Goldwater, successfully cast by the Democrats as a loose-cannon Dr. Strangelove. After an avalanche of proposals to fulfill the legacy of John F. Kennedy, LBJ nevertheless undertook his second term with elements of the country still suffering a post-Camelot hangover.

In 1972, Richard Nixon was also returned to office in a landslide. But he too benefited from having an opponent, George McGovern, thoroughly crippled by a disastrous vice-presidential selection process. A broad pushback against angry street protesters of the American involvement in the Vietnam War also clouded his election.

Nixon got a second term in part on a promised plan to end that war, neither articulated in his campaign nor fulfilled thereafter. The campaign operation that had engineered his victory self-immolated in the crimes of Watergate, and took him down with it.

Bill Clinton's second inauguration came in the wake of the sour taste of his House impeachment and Senate acquittal, only through the mercy of enough Senate Democrats willing to vote for it while figuratively holding their noses over his personal behavior and abysmal judgment.

This time around, Obama will be taking the oath of office a second time amid unrealized hopes set by his campaign in 2008 and the euphoria of the breakthrough by the first African-American president. He fueled it as well with soaring rhetoric promising "change you can believe in." Four years later, much of that uplift has worn off.

A good part of the erosion came through stiff Republican obstructionism in Congress. It was signaled by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's priority to make Obama a one-term president, and embraced with a vengence by House Republicans, particularly in the tea party faction.

But Obama contributed to the enthusiasm gap with his own perceived unwillingness to take them on, with actions as well as with words, in the series of fiscal and economic showdowns that plagued his first term. His eventual re-election was as much a measure of the fault-filled campaign of Mitt Romney as of his own team's superior voter turnout effort. Hence, Obama starts the next four years with a lot to prove as an effective president.

Approaching his second inauguration, he has vowed to rely more on generating public support for his legislative agenda than he managed his first time around, beginning with his push for an ambitious package of gun-control initiatives. His assertion that he has learned that going to the voters is the only way to change Washington will be harder to demonstrate, with much of the gloss now off the Obama persona.

For all his lofty intentions, he enters into his second four years still bogged down by the sluggish economy. He continues to blame it, with some justification, on the fiscal and economic mess he inherited four years ago, along with the continuing drag of two overseas wars he vowed to end.

Whether Obama can and will pivot to a more combative posture toward his political adversaries in Congress, while simultaneously mobilizing public support for it, is the major question hanging over him on the eve of his second oath-taking. As with two-termer Bill Clinton, hope has always been his copilot. Clinton managed, after a much greater personal trial, to survive the eight-year journey to a generally admired post-presidency.

Public opinion polls indicate most Americans have not given up on Obama the way they soured on his Republican predecessor by the end of his second term. So for the 44th president, the jury is still out, but he has enough time ahead to generate a lasting positive verdict.


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Another Second Inauguration | Politics

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