THERE is a photograph of Barack Obama taken almost exactly four years ago. He is in a tiny wood-lined lift in the White House heading up to the residence for the first time. He and Michelle have just attended 10 inauguration balls. Lifting his chin to loosen his bow tie he looks young and happy, tired and endlessly confident.
He did not know that as he and Michelle slow-danced through the night before seas of raised smartphones, the shattered Republican leadership had held a meeting that would help define his presidency. They gathered in a downtown steakhouse called The Caucus Room. Leading the group was Newt Gingrich, whose hardline politics in the 1990s had led the Republicans to a majority in the House of Representatives before it collapsed, exhausted by its own overreach.
Many of those present were stunned by the scope of the 2008 Republican defeat. Earlier in the day, they had seen almost 2 million people carpet the National Mall to welcome their new president. They feared they faced a generation in the wilderness. That very night, according to PBS's Frontline program, the group, which included congressional heavyweights Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Jim DeMint, agreed on a simple strategy – ruthless opposition to everything Obama proposed.
The following morning Obama returned to work on the stimulus package his team was working on to try to stave off what many feared would be a new great depression. Their transition briefings had been horrifying. After one of them, economic adviser Austan Goolsbee recalls saying to Obama, "Wow, that has to be the worst briefing a new president has had in almost a century," he told Frontline.
"That's not even the worst briefing I have had this week," Obama replied.
Determined to keep his promise to end the partisanship gripping Washington, Obama put together a proposal for a $900 billion stimulus package, much of it in the form of tax cuts designed to appeal to Republicans. In a further display of amity, Obama left the White House and travelled up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol to sell the proposal to Republicans.
He need not have bothered. They had already decided to oppose the proposal, just as they did later when Obama tried to win bipartisan support for healthcare reform.
The blanket opposition allowed Republicans to blame Obama for the flat economy, while using the spectre of socialist Obamacare death panels to gin up a large enough opposition to defeat the Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections. It was effective. As the economy languished and fury grew at the bailout of Wall Street and the banks, the Tea Party evolved and directed its often inchoate rage not at the traditional allies of big business – the Republicans – but at Obama. In the mid-term elections the Republicans won back the House, and were able to block Democrat legislation.
Obama, known around the world for his soaring rhetoric, proved a reluctant participant in the face-to-face politics of Washington, and failed to win over any Republican support. To the disappointment of many in his own caucus, he retreated to the White House, leaving the split Congress to try to settle their economic differences. They never managed to pass a budget after the mid-term elections, though the House found the time to pass legislation repealing Obamacare 33 times.
By the time he began his race for re-election, Obama had given up on any ideas he might have had about ending the division. Just as Republican candidates sought to best each other in reaching out to their party's right-wing base – often by railing against abortion rights and immigration reform – Obama said in an early appearance that if he said it was nighttime, Republicans would say it was day.
Meanwhile, his Chicago headquarters quietly went about stitching together a coalition of constituencies ignored by Republicans – Latinos, blacks, women and youth. You could hear the shock in one of the key voices of white middle America on election night when it became obvious that Obama had won. "The white establishment is now the minority," lamented Bill O'Reilly during Fox News' election coverage.
"The demographics are changing. It's not a traditional America any more."
That night Obama not only kept the White House and the Senate, but Democrats whittled away the Republican lead in the House. (Democrats outpolled the Republicans by more than 1 million votes but failed to win control due to gerrymandering.) The Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, views this as a status quo result; Obama as a mandate. Instead of enjoying the once traditional inauguration ceasefire, Obama threatened Boehner that he would use his inaugural address and the upcoming State of the Union speech to blame Republicans if they failed to come to the table during the fiscal cliff talks, The Wall Street Journal has reported.
And on Monday, Obama gave his last news conference of the first term, using the performance to smack Republicans about for their threat to refuse to raise the debt ceiling – the authorisation Congress must give the government to pay its debt.
On Wednesday, he got tough on guns. No one who saw him speak at the memorial in Sandy Hook in December could doubt that Obama believes this is good policy. But it is also anathema to Republicans, and particularly to the southern base that Obama's coalition defeated in November.
Once the debt ceiling crisis is resolved, it appears likely Obama will tackle immigration reform – an area where by happy coincidence good policy might meet good politics for Democrats. Obama wants measures that would "create pathways to citizenship" for some of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
This brings a generation in from the dark – many of whom have been born and raised in the US – but it would also split the Republican Party. Many Republicans from southern and western states could not support the measure without being killed off in primaries, while the party leadership knows it faces a structural minority if it alienates the Hispanic vote. Meanwhile, the President will be working to secure his legacy by bedding down his healthcare reforms, one of the policies that contributed to the savage division in America that exists today.
It is hard to imagine that this rift will be healed any time soon. The two parties have vast ideological differences. Obama believes the debt and deficit can only be tackled once the economy has been restored through economic stimulus. He has yet to propose any significant cuts to the automatic spending that soaks up half of the budget in welfare and health programs. Republicans, especially those elected in the 2010 Tea Party revolution, believe cutting spending and shrinking government is their first duty.
Then there is the matter of race. Charlton McIlwain, a New York University professor and author of a book on race in American politics, believes Obama's re-election is even more significant than his first victory. "His re-election affirms the notion that non-whites can legitimately attain such political heights. It gives credence to the notion that we have made progress on race as a nation."
But McIlwain is not optimistic that the coming term will be less acrimonious than the first. "I think division is inevitable and will likely be exacerbated during the second term. Obama will likely be more far-reaching in what he attempts to achieve, drawing even greater opposition from a Congress that is already sharply divided along party and ideological lines.
"Like the healthcare debate from the first term, opposition in the second will likely be tinged with both explicit and implicit racial rhetoric. The NRA head [Wayne] LaPierre's reference to Obama as elitist is one recent example of steps in this direction." (The subtext, he explains, is that forceful white leaders are seen as tough, while strong black ones are often described as arrogant or elitist, another way of saying uppity.)
It is hard to even conceive of the self-belief Obama must have felt the last time he walked under the Capitol's dome, down the narrow corridors and passageways to the inauguration stage. Just four years earlier he had been an unknown Illinois politician. When he retraces his steps on Monday, he will be more battered and tarnished, certainly more grey. Rather than seeking to heal and unify his country, he will be wanting to keep his enemies in view and his friends at his back. As a Real Clear Politics headline put it this week, there will be No More Mr Nice President.
The story No more Mr Nice Guy: Obama to take the fight to the Republicans first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.