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Obama's Second-Term Wish List

January 23, 2013

President Obama's 15-minute, 2,108-word second inaugural address followed the old wedding advice to offer "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue."

The "something old" was Mr. Obama's habit of serving up straw men before triumphantly demolishing them. "No single person," he harrumphed, "can train all the math and science teachers" or "build all the roads and networks and research labs" America needs.

I'll pay for a year's subscription to this newspaper for anyone who can identify a single person who has suggested such a thing. While we're at it, who exactly is proposing we "choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future"?

The "something new" was Mr. Obama's unapologetic liberalism. Since he started running for president six years ago, Mr. Obama had pretended (against all evidence) that he was a centrist. But with his final election behind him, the president is free to reveal his true self—a man fully of the left.

The president's address made clear that his principal domestic concerns are no longer petty ones of the economy (45 words in three sentences) or deficit reduction (19 words in one sentence, followed by 155 words in six sentences saying entitlements won't be cut).

Instead, Mr. Obama's priorities for his second term are climate change (nine sentences and 160 words) and "our generation's task" (10 sentences and 358 words) of equal pay for women, access to gay marriage, the repeal of laws requiring photo identification to vote, immigration reform and gun control.

The "something borrowed" was Mr. Obama's poaching from Abraham Lincoln's 1858 "House Divided" speech ("no nation . . . could survive half-slave and half-free"), his December 1862 message to Congress ("fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges"), and his Gettysburg Address ("a government, of, and by, and for the people"). But a speech that borrows so heavily from others ends up with no memorable lines of its own.

The "something blue" was Mr. Obama's astonishingly partisan edge, echoed by a chorus of his aides. He ungraciously slapped at his defeated Republican rival, Mitt Romney, saying Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security did not make America "a nation of takers" (playing off a phrase uttered by Mr. Romney during the campaign). Mr. Obama also suggested that Republicans were name-calling absolutists and clowns, not a loyal opposition to be treated with any respect. So his point wouldn't be lost, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer telegraphed it in Sunday's Washington Post, saying, "[W]e don't have a political system or an opposition party worthy of the opportunity."

The media will clearly help Team Obama try to marginalize the Republican opposition. Take the jaw-dropping posting last Friday by CBS News Political Director John Dickerson on Slate.com, in which he counseled Mr. Obama to "declare war on the Republican Party" because he "can only cement his legacy if he destroys the GOP." According to Mr. Dickerson, if the president "wants to transform American politics, he must go for the throat" and "pulverize" and "his goal should be to delegitimize his opponents."

After a wave of conservative outrage, Mr. Dickerson tried to back-peddle on Tuesday, saying his piece was "analysis—not advice." The proper response to this is a belly laugh. Media bias is hardly confined to Dan Rather's former network. Mr. Dickerson simply wrote what many of his colleagues believe.

But even with them shaping the coverage of his second term, Mr. Obama is unlikely to fulfill his liberal wish-list. The president could not pass climate-change legislation in 2009 when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. What chance does he have now with a Republican-controlled House? Same for gay marriage (the Supreme Court and the states, not the White House, are the centers of action here), an assault-weapons ban, or federal pre-emption of state voter-ID laws. Immigration reform might become law, but only if Mr. Obama forges bipartisan legislation.

As to the president's goal of retaking the House in 2014, that's highly unlikely. In the last half-century, the party in the White House has lost an average of 10 congressional seats and almost half as many senators in the second term midterm election. Only President Bill Clinton presided over a pick-up in either chamber (five seats in the House, zero in the Senate in 1998), mainly due to GOP overreach on impeachment.

Overreach of any kind is not likely with John Boehner as House speaker. Moreover, the 2014 midterm will be only the second election in House districts that were solidly drawn to the GOP's advantage—and seven Democratic senators are up for re-election in states Mitt Romney carried.

Mr. Obama's inaugural address was below average, like his Gallup job-approval rating of 48% last Friday. But it served to demonstrate that the president isn't focused on the issues Americans most care about—namely jobs, the economy and deficits. We're about to find out what a Barack Obama not facing re-election is like. My guess is that many Americans won't like what they see.

A version of this article appeared January 24, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama's Second-Term Wish List, and online at WSJ.com.

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