Obama Second Inaugural Address Confronts Familiar Challenges

Obama Aims to Reset Tone of Political Debate as New Fiscal Fights Loom

January 20, 2013, 11:27 AM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 21, 2013 -- At the height of the "fiscal cliff" showdown, the final political battle of his first term, President Barack Obama lamented the bitter persistence of Washington partisanship as "déjà vu all over again."

Today, as Obama delivers his second inaugural address on the west front of the Capitol, he could say the same thing about the looming political battles of his new term.

Four years ago, Obama took office amidst what he then described as "gathering clouds and raging storms," an economic crisis that resulted from "our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

The nation was in the throes of a financial collapse, decades in the making, whose breadth and depth were only starting to be known. It would become a devastating recession, the worst since the Great Depression.

Now, even as the economy continues a gradual climb back from the brink, many of those "hard choices" still remain, with climbing deficits and debt and a yawning partisan gap over how to deal with them.

On the horizon is a cascade of fresh fiscal crises, these politically self-imposed, over the nation's debt ceiling, spending cuts and a federal budget, all of which economists say threaten another recession and could further downgrade of the nation's credit rating.

Obama will use the first major speech of his second term to try to reset the tone of debate and turn the page on the political battles of the past, hoping for something of a fresh start.

He will "talk about the challenges that face us and what unites us as Americans," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told ABC News.

"Monday is an American moment: the swearing-in of the President of the United States -- everyone's president," Messina said. "You're going to see a president who wants to work across party lines to get things done, that's what the country wants."

He will acknowledge that we won't "settle every debate or resolve every difference" but that we "have an obligation to work together," said a senior administration official, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely about the speech.

Obama will not discuss specific policy prescriptions in his address, though he may broadly allude to issues of war, immigration, climate change and environment, and gun control, officials said. The details will be saved for the State of the Union address on Feb. 12.

But the president will make clear that his re-election -- the first Democrat to win two elections with more than 50 percent of the vote since FDR -- reflects momentum for his agenda, said top White House aides.

"He's going to find every way he can to compromise. But he's going to be pretty clear, and we're also going to bring the American people more into the debate than we did in the first term," senior Obama adviser David Plouffe said on ABC's "This Week."

Polls show Obama begins his second term with soaring popularity -- the highest job approval rating in years -- and strong backing on some of his top legislative priorities.

Fifty-five percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of Obama's job performance overall, the most since November 2009, with a small exception for the 56 percent spike shortly after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

That rating compares with 19 percent approval for Congress -- matching its lowest at or near the start of a new session in polls by ABC News and the Washington Post since 1975.

Majorities in the survey also broadly favor Obama's position on the debt ceiling, gun control measures, and reforms for the immigration system.

Obama, who was officially sworn in Sunday in a private ceremony at the White House, will speak before an expected crowd of 800,000 on the National Mall and millions more watching at home.

But while the inauguration will be a flag-waving moment of unity for many Americans, it is likely to be a fleeting one, just as similar moments at other points during Obama's first term -- from mass shootings and natural disasters to the killing of bin Laden -- have been.

This week alone will see partisan passions flare when outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on Capitol Hill over the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. The battle over gun-control legislation heats up as bills are brought to the congressional floor. And Senators of both parties are girding for a fight with the White House over Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, whose confirmation hearings start on Jan. 31.

Obama has been working on his inaugural address since mid-December, officials said, working through drafts of the text on yellow legal pads that he's been spotted carrying through the West Wing. He also hosted a dinner with presidential historians at the White House last week, looking for insights on how to make his speech memorable and impactful.

In a video message to his supporters reflecting on the moment, Obama said two historical figures would be especially on his mind today: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Abraham Lincoln.

"Their actions, the movements they represented are the only reason it's possible for me to be inaugurated," Obama said. "It's also a reminder for me that this country has gone through very tough times before, but we always come out on the other side."

For the ceremonial oath-taking, Obama will place his left hand on the stacked personal Bibles of Lincoln and King.