On the eve of his second inaugural, President Obama appears smarter, tougher and bolder than ever before. But whether he is also wiser remains a key question for his new term.
It is clear that he is consciously changing his leadership style heading into the next four years. Weeks before the November elections, his top advisers were signaling that he intended to be a different kind of president in his second term.
"Just watch," they said to me, in effect, "he will win re-election decisively and then he will throw down the gauntlet to the Republicans, insisting they raise taxes on the wealthy. Right on the edge of the fiscal cliff, he thinks Republicans will cave."
What's your Plan B, I asked. "We don't need a Plan B," they answered. "After the president hangs tough -- no more Mr. Nice Guy -- the other side will buckle." Sure enough, Republicans caved on taxes. Encouraged, Obama has since made clear he won't compromise with Republicans on the debt ceiling, either.
Obama 2.0 stepped up this past week on yet another issue: gun control. No president in two decades has been as forceful or sweeping in challenging the nation's gun culture. Once again, he portrayed the right as the enemy of progress and showed no interest in negotiating a package up front.
In his coming State of the Union address, and perhaps in his inaugural, the president will begin a hard push for a comprehensive reform of our tattered immigration system. Leading GOP leaders on the issue -- Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, for example -- would prefer a piecemeal approach that is bipartisan. Obama wants to go for broke in a single package, and on a central issue -- providing a clear path to citizenship for undocumented residents -- he is uncompromising.
After losing out on getting Susan Rice as his next secretary of state, Obama has also shown a tougher side on personnel appointments. Rice went down after Democratic as well as Republican senators indicated a preference for Sen. John Kerry. But when Republicans also tried to kill the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, Obama was unyielding -- an "in-your-face appointment," Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, called it, echoing sentiments held by some of his colleagues.
Republicans would have preferred someone other than Jack Lew at Treasury, but Obama brushed them off. Hagel and Lew -- both substantial men -- will be confirmed, absent an unexpected bombshell, and Obama will rack up two more victories over Republicans.
Strikingly, Obama has also been deft in the ways he has drawn upon Vice President Joe Biden. During much of the campaign, Biden appeared to be kept under wraps. But in the transition, he has been invaluable to Obama in negotiating a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the fiscal cliff and in pulling together the gun package. Biden was also at his most eloquent at the ceremony announcing the gun measures.
All of this has added up for Obama to one of the most effective transitions in modern times. And it is paying rich dividends: A CNN poll this past week pegged his approval rating at 55%, far above the doldrums he was in for much of the past two years. Many of his long-time supporters are rallying behind him. As the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to score back-to-back election victories with more than 50% of the vote, Obama is in the strongest position since early in his first year.
Smarter, tougher, bolder -- his new style is paying off politically. But in the long run, will it also pay off in better governance? Perhaps -- and for the country's sake, let's hope so. Yet, there are ample reasons to wonder, and worry.
Source: CNN | David Gergen
David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter. Watch CNN's comprehensive coverage of President Barack Obama's second inauguration this weekend on CNN TV and follow online at CNN.com or via CNN's apps for iPhone, iPad and Android.