Every time during his first term that Barack Obama stumbled, had difficulty getting a piece of legislation passed, or got mired in the ugly realities of contemporary politics, conservatives could be counted on to say, "Ha! Where's your hope and change now, huh? Huh?" It's true that his 2008 campaign was an unusually idealistic one, both in its lofty rhetoric and in what it inspired in his supporters, so much so that the mundane realities of governing were bound to be disillusioning for many. As his second term begins, there's no question that Obama has learned a great deal. He understands Washington better, he understands Congress better, and he certainly understands the Republican party better. And that may just make for a more effective second term, despite all the obstacles in front of him.
Before we get to why and how, let's take a moment to remind ourselves that for all its drama and all its compromises, Obama's first term was one of remarkable accomplishment. It saw the passage of an enormous stimulus bill, reforms for Wall Street and education funding, victories on equal pay for women and student loans, the Affordable Care Act, the end of the Iraq War, the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and the installment of two relatively young progressive women on the Supreme Court. There were, of course, plenty of failures and shortcomings, including the lack of action on immigration and climate change, the acceptance of many of the Bush administration's policies on civil liberties, and the continuation of the disastrous war on drugs. But whatever else you want to say about him, you can't say Obama didn't get a lot done.
And if the last few weeks are any indication, the Obama of the second term could be a much tougher character. He probably won't be as tough as many of his liberal supporters would like, but he seems to have fundamentally changed his perspective on how to deal with the opposition. Whether because he was disabused of some naïve notions about his power to persuade or because he has simply made a strategic shift (more likely the latter), Republicans are likely to be even less pleased with him than they have been up until now.
We shouldn't overstate this—Obama isn't suddenly turning into a cold-blooded Machiavellian, seeking only to crush his enemies and see them driven before him. But he acting as though he has come to realize that bipartisanship for bipartisanship's sake has no particular value, and negotiating with yourself only leaves you with less when all is said and done.
Look, for instance, at how he handled his new effort to address gun violence. As E.J. Dionne has observed, instead of trying to guess what Republicans might want and including some of those guesses in his proposal, Obama simply said, Here is what I want, now we can start negotiating. It's true that his proposals could have gone farther (he could, for instance, have proposed that everyone who wants a gun should pass a safety test and get a license), but there wasn't that attempt we've seen so often from him of trying to bring in Republicans by making concessions from the start.
Let's not forget how many times Obama played that guessing game in his first term. He wanted Republican support for his stimulus package, so it was written so a full third of the money would be distributed in the form of tax cuts. How many Republicans voted for it? Zero in the House, and two (the Maine moderates) in the Senate. On health care reform, he not only made a conservative idea the centerpiece of his proposal (the individual mandate, which had its origins at the Heritage Foundation), but spent a year in meetings and speeches and conclaves and events practically begging Republicans to join him. How many voted for the Affordable Care Act in the end? Zero in the House, zero in the Senate.
Part of the idea of those efforts at reaching was that even if Republicans were unpersuaded, in the end Obama would look like the reasonable one and they'd seem like the obstructionists. Which is fine, but it means making substantial policy concessions for a rather vague and uncertain political benefit. And without another election to worry about, Obama can give those political considerations a little less weight.
On the gun issue, Obama knows that most, maybe all Republicans will oppose almost anything he proposes, so the only chance to get anything accomplished is to beat them. And something similar happened on the most recent round of reckless GOP gamesmanship over the debt ceiling. Instead of suggesting the kind of ransom he might be willing to pay, Obama took the Michael Corleone approach ("My offer is this: nothing."). He told them that he wouldn't negotiate over the debt ceiling, it just had to be raised, and he stuck to that position. Republicans (not all of them, but enough) have come to see that holding the American economy hostage is politically disastrous for them, and Speaker Boehner agreed to raise the ceiling for the next three months. He can try at the end of that time to initiate a new hostage crisis, but chances are he won't find the prospects for victory any more favorable, and he'll be forced to cave to Obama again. Republicans don't like this new tougher Obama, but let's be honest—they didn't like the old friendlier one either.
Obama's biographers (including himself) told us when he ran in 2008 that his perspective was shaped by his biracial identify and peripatetic upbringing; as a perpetual outsider, he sought to weave a synthesis out of thesis and antithesis, learning how to talk to different kinds of people and find just enough common ground to diffuse conflict and build relationships. But he has also always been, as David Maraniss observed Sunday in The Washington Post, a student of power. After four years at its apex, his understanding of how to wield it and what it can and cannot accomplish has surely grown keener. Four years from now, we'll be able to see what he was able to do with that knowledge.