Mr. Obama throws down gauntlet

Trivia buffs have noted that only U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt have taken the oath of office four times. FDR did so because he was elected president four times. Mr. Obama has done it because he and Supreme Court Justice John Roberts flubbed the first oath four years ago and repeated the procedure a day later to erase any doubts. Again this year, he went through the process twice because he was constitutionally bound to take the oath on Jan. 20 before repeating it a day later for the inauguration crowds.

After Mr. Obama’s second inaugural address was delivered last week, observers are seeing much more in common between the two presidents.

Mr. Obama’s speech was a full-throated defense of his vision for the country, uniformly described as the most liberal speech delivered by a U.S. president in decades.

Gone was the soaring rhetoric about coming together as one nation. In its place was more combative phrasing that laid out the case for a more progressive, activist government. His speech inflated his supporters and infuriated his opponents. It was a call to action, but it was not, as some insist, a declaration of war.

No one should forget that Mr. Obama once taught constitutional law. His speech continually evoked the most important phrase from the Declaration of Independence, “we the people.” The president no doubt intended that phrase to remind his audience that he spoke for a nation and that he was urging all his listeners to join together in common purpose.

He returned to the Declaration of Independence, intoning its most powerful theme, “that all men are created equal.” He then used that language to validate his policies: “history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.”

That simple truth compels government to act, a point he hammered home by noting that “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.”

His tone was more aggressive because the state of the nation had changed. Four years ago, the country teetered on the brink of depression, exhausted after two grueling wars. Important decisions had been put off as the nation struggled to secure itself.

As his second term began, the United States was enjoying a fragile economic recovery, it was winding down its troop presence in the remaining conflict in Afghanistan and was seeking to turn its attention to problems at home, problems that were significant but were manageable with will and determination.

As Mr. Obama explained, “Decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay.”

His political opponents dismissed the speech as divisive and ideological, and inappropriate to an occasion when victors should be reaching out to the defeated and urging them to come together. They wanted more olive branches. They expected more of the “postpartisan” posturing that Mr. Obama provided in his first inaugural address.

Unfortunately for them, Mr. Obama, too, has changed. Before the election, he had conceded that changing the way that Washington worked was difficult, if not impossible, from inside the bubble. The constant battles over every initiative, large or small, convinced him that the time had come to take his case to the people outside the Beltway.

Some worry that President Obama is now in constant campaign mode — a great irony since many of those same people worry that, freed from concerns about another election, the president would use his second term to reveal “the real Obama.”

In fact, there was never any doubt about his priorities, only the tactics that he would adopt to get them passed. Plainly, the president has had his frustrations over the past four years and has decided to change course.

An inaugural speech is supposed to provide a vision for the country. Mr. Obama obliged. Some will say that he has offered merely one vision and that now the Republican opposition should respond so that Americans can debate which is better for their country.

But that is what the election was for. There was no mistaking Mr. Obama’s ambition and objectives during that campaign; he has won the right to try to bring that vision to life.

The particulars of his second four years will be sketched in more detail when Mr. Obama delivers his State of the Union address. There, he will outline the details of his forthcoming legislative agenda, his priorities and his goals.

Expect immigration reform to be one of those priorities, along with gun control and perhaps even efforts to reduce global warming. On foreign policy, Mr. Obama will likely double down on his “rebalance” to Asia, but that policy will be tempered by the harsh realities of America’s straitened fiscal circumstances.

The battle for the budget will define the first part of Mr. Obama’s second term, no matter what his ambitions are. Republicans see fiscal rectitude as their issue and are girding for a real fight over government finances.

Again, that debate is important and its resolution key to the future of the U.S. But a strategy based on taking the economy hostage and threatening the faith and credit of the U.S. government weakens the country.

Mr. Obama, too, recognizes the need to get the country’s fiscal house in order as that is the key to all his dreams. We wish him and his country good luck in his second term.