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der Tagesspiegel, Germany

Obama’s Place in History

By Christoph von Marschall

In his victory speech after the November election and in his inaugural acceptance speech, President Obama could afford to be poetic. But he has to govern the country with prose.

Translated By Ron Argentati

23 January 2012

Edited by Lau­rence Bouvard


Germany - der Tagesspiegel - Original Article (German)

What kind of speech was that? It took Barack Obama just a quarter of an hour to solve everyone's problems—while not solving anyone's problems. It all depends on who's doing the listening. For those who wanted to see him fight, he laid out projects for his second term that identify him as a progressive: Addressing climate change, equal rights for gays, social security guarantees and gun laws. But he offered no explanation of how the government intends to do this. He had something for the conservatives as well: America is committed to free enterprise. No one should think the government is the answer to every problem. Above all, he doesn't consider his victory to be a victory of one ideology over another.

He pleaded for cohesion in a society with its various minorities and divergent interests. He urgently asked for everyone's cooperation, stressing that success would only be possible if everyone pulled together. It follows then that no one side would have its own way, that each little victory would be balanced by a little defeat. America was at a crossroads.

The coming four years could mean political stalemate or an era of limited reforms, as in Bill Clinton's second term. Despite the odds against him, Obama was re-elected. That gives him political capital. But Republicans successfully defended their majority in the House. Nothing happens without their cooperation. Obama now fights for his place in the history books. His only assurance there depends on his ability to convince enough conservatives to agree to his reforms in the areas of debt reduction, immigration and energy policy. Republicans, on the other hand, are fighting for their future. They have to open up or run the risk of permanent defeat at the polls. Open up to Latinos, the fastest growing minority. Open up to gays.

The last election only sketched out the rough framework. The actual distribution of power is negotiated anew each and every day. The president's most powerful weapons are his public speeches and the results of follow-up opinion polls, along with the power of the presidential veto. But Republicans can restrict his room to maneuver, impose budgetary limits on his programs and block his political appointments. In the speeches leading up to his election, Barack Obama could afford to be poetic. But he has to govern the country with prose. If he wants accomplishments, he has to distance himself somewhat from his party, offer the Republicans compromises, position himself as president of all Americans and push for practical solutions. As long as there are Republicans who are not totally under the thrall of extremist ideology and who hope to win elections in 2014 and 2016, some will be receptive to Obama's ideas.

This is certainly not a turn toward total pragmatism. Should the squabbles over gun rights and the debt ceiling escalate, the situation could become even more confrontational. At present, however, all signs seem to indicate the Republicans are turning away from the outright blackmail they openly threatened and have been practicing since the election. It's now up to Obama to return that signal. The time to switch from poetry to prose is now.



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