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First Thoughts: An emboldened Obama

President Barack Obama speaks at the Commander in Chief's Ball during presidential inauguration ceremonies in Washington, Jan. 21, 2013.
President Barack Obama speaks at the Commander in Chief's Ball during presidential inauguration ceremonies in Washington, Jan. 21, 2013.Rick Wilking / Reuters

An emboldened Obama… The liberal Reagan?... But can Obama get a third term (George H.W. Bush’s) like Reagan did?... Obama’s striking comments (and shift) on gay marriage… His striking comments on climate change… The potential for overreach?... Obama attends national prayer service at 10:30 am ET… NBC/WSJ poll: Majority, for first time, want abortion legal… House to vote tomorrow on raising the debt ceiling… And Israel’s clear-right shift?

*** An emboldened Obama: Since becoming a national political figure eight years ago, Barack Obama has often cast himself as someone trying to transcend petty and dogmatic politics. “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he said at the 2004 Democratic convention. “There is the United States of America.” And at his first inauguration four years ago, President Obama said, “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” But chastened by the last four years and emboldened by his decisive re-election in November, Obama yesterday discarded that image of post-partisanship and instead called for action -- which was unmistakably on the liberal side. “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time,” he said in his second inaugural address. More than anything else, it was an unabashed defense of liberalism/progressivism.

President Barack Obama speaks at the Commander in Chief's Ball during presidential inauguration ceremonies in Washington, Jan. 21, 2013.
President Barack Obama speaks at the Commander in Chief's Ball during presidential inauguration ceremonies in Washington, Jan. 21, 2013.Rick Wilking / Reuters

*** The liberal Reagan? Indeed, back in 2008, Obama said he viewed a successful presidency as one that changed the trajectory of American politics. "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not,” he said. And another way to interpret Obama’s inaugural address was as a declaration that politics has been transformed -- on the role of government, on gay rights, and on war. As a result, commentators across the ideological spectrum (Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat, Matthew Continetti) compared Obama’s speech yesterday, and his presidency, to a liberal Reagan. But remember this about Reagan: The reason he has able to change the trajectory of American politics is that he essentially received a third term (George H.W. Bush’s), which not only resulted in more Supreme Court nominees and government appointments, but which also broke the opposition party. In other words, it made the opposition rethink its entire ideology. After all, those three GOP terms later resulted in Bill Clinton’s centrist presidency that cemented conservative politics (welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, the era of big government is over). Similarly, it was the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses that cemented the New Deal and Great Society. So can Obama get a third or fourth term? That’s what 2016 will be about. If Democrats do get that third term, the GOP will be forced to rethink its ideology.

Slideshow: 57th Presidential Inauguration

*** Obama’s striking comments (and shift) on gay rights: Maybe the most striking (and memorable) lines of Obama’s inaugural speech were his remarks on gay rights. “‘All of us are created equal’ is the star that guides us still -- just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” he said. He later added, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” It’s important to remember that Obama was someone who opposed gay marriage in presidential run in ’08, and who later said he was evolving on the subject. Obama’s shift is a reflection of how quickly the politics of gay marriage have changed in this country. (The train was leaving the station, and Obama jumped on board.) And so is the fact that there has been little to no backlash to those remarks -- at least so far.

*** And his striking comments on climate change: What also struck us about yesterday’s speech was his call to action on climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” The line was striking because climate change isn’t viewed as a top-shelf priority for Obama’s second term (compared with gun control, immigration, and the fiscal situation). Yes, Obama did mention the topic at his 2012 Democratic convention address. (“Climate change is not a hoax,” he said. “More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke.”) But he didn’t say those two words of “climate change” during his 2012 victory speech. And his administration abandoned the cap-and-trade legislation on energy once it was clear it couldn’t pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. Question: Does this mean we should expect a more serious policy proposal on climate change in Obama’s State of the Union next month?

*** The potential for overreach? Given this emboldened Obama and given these calls for action on gay rights and climate change, the Washington Post’s Dan Balz writes that there’s a potential risk for Obama: overreach. “Obama risks overreaching or over-interpreting his mandate, which can be an affliction of newly reelected presidents. His victory in November was decisive but not overwhelming. Self-confidence can slip over the line to arrogance or hubris. Second terms often disappoint. So there are dangers ahead for the president.” Also, as ambitious as Obama’s vision was yesterday, little else is going to happen until the fiscal/budget impasse is broken.

*** Obama’s day: Today, the inaugural ceremonies conclude with Obama’s participating at a national prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral at 10:30 am ET.

*** NBC/WSJ poll: Majority, for first time, want abortion legal: Also today is the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. And pegged to that decision, a new NBC/WSJ poll finds that a majority of American – for the first time -- believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. What’s more, seven in 10 respondents oppose Roe v. Wade being overturned, which is the highest percentage on this question since 1989. “These are profound changes,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart and his colleagues. McInturff adds that the abortion-related events and rhetoric over the past year – which included controversial remarks on abortion and rape by two Republican Senate candidates, as well as a highly charged debate over contraception – helped shaped these changing poll numbers. “The dialogue we have had in the last year has contributed … to inform and shift attitudes.”

*** House to vote tomorrow on raising the debt ceiling: Tomorrow, the House of Representatives will vote on raising the debt ceiling, NBC’s Shawna Thomas confirmed. Per the AP, “House leaders on Monday unveiled legislation to permit the government to continue borrowing money through May 18 in order to stave off a first-ever default on U.S. obligations. It is slated for a vote on Wednesday. The measure marks a change in strategy for House Republicans, who have backed off demands that any extension of the government's borrowing authority be accompanied by stiff spending cuts.” This vote is a retreat by House Republicans, but they’re making the most of their retreat with this infographic.

*** Israel’s clear-right shift? Lastly, while we’re discussing America’s possible shift from a center-right nation to MAYBE a center-left one, Israel’s elections today could cement that country’s shift from the center-right to the clear-right. The New York Times: “Polls in recent weeks have consistently predicted a victory for Mr. Netanyahu’s ticket, a combination of his conservative Likud Party and the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu. But the polls have also shown the joint ticket declining in strength, from the 42 seats it holds in the current Parliament to perhaps 32 or 35, and losing support to the Jewish Home, a party further to the right that has been revitalized and energized under the leadership of Naftali Bennett, a charismatic first-time candidate.”

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