Neil Macdonald: Stage set for a more muscular Obama
Look out, mewling Republicans, second term promises a more active presidency
America's president is suddenly muscular, ripped, oxygenated.
Like the Laurence Fishburne character Morpheus in The Matrix, Barack Obama is assuming a wide martial stance, extending his arm toward the GOP, turning his palm up, and beckoning with all four fingers: Let's do this thing.
There he was at a news conference the other day, characterizing Republicans as blackmailing America, seeking "a ransom for not crashing the economy."
Obama is living the most enviable time a president can contemplate: about to begin a second term having won a clear mandate, knowing he will never run for office again.
If you're president, it is not the truth that sets you free (all presidents, as historians will tell you, are required to lie as part of their job description). Re-election does.
Presumably, we are now about to see the real Obama, the one who's been hiding under that equable, professorial veneer, the choirmaster who came into office determined to show "there is no red America, no blue America, only the United States of America."
Well, it turns out there is indeed a red (conservative) America, and a blue (liberal) America, and Obama's efforts to gentle Congress into a Kumbaya sing-along were utter failures.
Republicans played him for a chump right from the start, and in these past two years especially, basically saying no to everything.
They made his defeat in 2012 central to their entire legislative agenda. And they lost that bet in November, rather spectacularly.
Mewling on the right
Except that, in defeat, the Republicans are a whinier bunch than even al-Qaeda.
They evidently felt terribly bruised after the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations last month, which weren't so much negotiations as a self-organized circular firing squad.
Opinion polls found that the American public was prepared to lay most of the blame on Republicans if the country plunged over that foolishly created cliff, and Obama used that fact rather ruthlessly.
In the end, the Republicans caved and allowed taxes to rise, but only after the most extreme GOP members in the House publicly humiliated their own speaker, John Boehner, for having dared to compromise.
Now, the mewling is becoming deafening.
Fox News Channel anchors, the media voice of the Republican right, ceaselessly ask: "Is the president doing enough to compromise with Republicans?"
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, famous for his own no-compromise rants, complains that Obama is showing himself to be the uncompromising demagogue that he, Krauthammer, always felt Obama to be.
"He's been using this, and I must say with great skill — and ruthless skill and success — to fracture and basically shatter the Republican opposition," Krauthammer declared recently, as Fox News host Sean Hannity listened with an air of great sadness.
"His objective from the very beginning was to break the will of the Republicans in the House, and to create an internal civil war. And he's done that."
Really. As though the Republicans wouldn't relish doing the same to Democrats if they had the chance.
But Krauthammer is right that Obama is flexing, to the joy of Democrats who've been begging him since 2008 to be more aggressive in office.
For example, he has now decided to bypass Congress as much as possible, at least on gun control, issuing a slew of executive orders to try to keep certain weapons away from people he thinks shouldn't have them.
It may not stand judicial challenge, but it sure shakes up the turgid order of things in Washington.
America will also soon see whether Obama has any real interest in "foreign entanglements."
The answer is probably no, except by dint of remote-controlled Predator drones. Although how Obama deals with Iran's nuclear ambitions remains an open question.
And those critics who claim Obama is "anti-Israel" may just find he is simply uninterested.
Wading into that patch of deep mud, and attempting to broker yet another Israeli-Palestinian deal, fascinated some of his legacy-minded predecessors. But it always turned out to be a mug's game.
Israel currently has one of the most hardline governments in its history, one that has shown little interest in negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinians. And that government may emerge even further to the right after this week's elections.
In his first term, Obama did Israel's bidding by blocking unilateral Palestinian statehood. But he was stung for trying to rein in Israeli settlement building, and publicly lectured by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Now, he appears content to leave the Jewish state and the Palestinians to their own destiny, something moderate Israelis rightly fear, and concentrate on a legacy for which he would actually be thanked: fixing America's finances.
It may not be possible.
Debt and taxes
Obama was absolutely right at that news conference last week when he pointed out that raising the federal debt limit — the next big partisan fight on his calendar — merely means paying bills Congress has already racked up.
He was also right when he said that threatening not to pay those bills has seismic potential consequences for the U.S. and world economies.
In 2011, Obama ineptly negotiated raising the debt limit with Tea Party-dominated Republicans. This time, he says he won't negotiate at all.
He may even assert an obscure constitutional provision to protect the sanctity of the nation's credit, issue an executive order and dare Congress to do something about it.
So he'll be interesting, this newly empowered Obama.
But he might also be something else: He may still turn out to be the big-government, tax-and-spend liberal his detractors say he is.
During the election, he campaigned not only on raising taxes on the richest Americans, but on striking a "balanced approach," effectively conceding that out-of-control government spending must be curtailed.
Somehow, the latter part of that equation has evaporated since November.
If Barack Obama really wants to fix America's finances, he must rationalize things like Social Security, defence spending and, especially, Medicare, as the baby boomers retire and require ever more medical attention.
Obama presents himself as the personification of sensible, firm, responsible governance. We shall see, and probably soon.