Anna Fifield: Obama's Big Day

by gabeatkinson / 24 January, 2013
Americans turn it on for their equivalent of a royal wedding.

They say Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. Well, this week, good old DC has put on a performance that, although not quite the Oscars, had a sizable amount of glitz. Between Beyoncé singing the national anthem and Katy Perry performing at the inaugural ball, Washington marked the start of President Barack Obama’s second term with great fanfare.

In this most political of towns it was refreshing to feel everyone coming together around their President. It was essentially the American equivalent of a royal wedding. The lamp posts were festooned with flags, supporters decked-out in bejewelled Obama shirts flocked to the National Mall and the city was filled with a kind of collective happiness I’ve never experienced in Washington.

E pluribus unum and all that. Then I discovered another capital tradition: pretty much all the Republicans had left town (just as Democrats hit the road both times George W Bush was sworn in). So much for unity.

  • The street sweepers had barely cleaned up the souvenir pamphlets from Pennsylvania Ave before it was time to get back to the dirty business of Washington. First up for Obama is one issue he only vaguely referred to in his inaugural address: gun control. The President is seizing on the horror of the Sandy Hook shootings to try to make progress on this most difficult of political issues.  I have reported from some foreign places in my time, such as Iran and North Korea, but there are times when the US seems the most foreign of them all. This is one of those times. The National Rifle Association has become even more notorious – who knew that was even possible? – since suggesting that the correct response to Sandy Hook is to put armed guards in all schools. Now there are companies marketing bulletproof backpacks and whiteboards. As if the answer is to try to block the bullets, as opposed to stop them being fired in schools in the first place. I’ve talked a lot to people out in the “real America” about guns and the special place they hold in American hearts. But I think I’ll have to chalk this up to one of those things about the country that I’ll never get.

  • Three Januarys ago, Washington was suffocating after “Snowpocalypse” hit. This month, I have daffodils in my front yard. Between the unseasonable warmth on the East Coast and the freeze that just hit the usually temperate west, it seems climate change is not just happening but is visible. Still, there are a number of climate-

    The New Yorker Collection/

    change deniers in Congress and passing legislation to deal with global warming is a non-starter. So it was noteworthy that Obama made a full-throated pledge in his inaugural address to tackle 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,” he said. He is still likely to have to use regulation rather than legislation, but it was a surprising and prominent pledge and gives greenies something to look forward to this administration.

  • One of the biggest questions hanging over Washington is whether Obama II will look like Obama I. For all the liberals out there who thought healthcare and financial reform weren’t ambitious enough, for those who thought the President caved in too readily to Republicans, the signs are looking promising. Obama has already shown some backbone in Budget talks and just made one of the most overtly political inauguration speeches. Freed from the burden of re-election, he can now think about his legacy. Will the real Obama please step forward.

Anna Fifield is a New Zealander who reports for the Financial Times from Washington DC.
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