The New Barack Obama


We have a new president! I mean, not in the sense of the president being someone other than Barack Obama. But in the sense of the president being a second-term Obama rather than a first-term Obama. That makes a big difference. There's a tendency to emphasize the negative part of the difference -- as in "lame duck." But there's a kind of liberation that comes from being a lame duck, and that can bring a lot of good.

The good flows from two things: Worrying more about legacy -- about how posterity will judge you -- and worrying less (in fact, not at all) about getting reelected. Right now, shortly after Obama's triumph, I may be feeling too optimistic about how much good can come from these things. But I'm sure some good can come from them. In any event, here are some issues that I hope will benefit from a liberated Barack Obama:

Drone strikes: Obama's extensive use of drone strikes seems to be grounded in an acute fear that, if he doesn't constantly squash al Qaeda-esque militants, America will be hit by a terrorist attack. (He was reportedly freaked out by the close call on Christmas of 2009.) An understandable concern -- not just because no responsible leader wants citizens killed by terrorists, but because no rational politician wants to be held responsible for such attacks when facing reelection. Well, he's not facing reelection any more. I'd like to think that this will give him enough breathing space to pause and rethink the long term costs of these drone strikes -- to consider, for example, the possibility that they're creating more terrorists than they're killing, something posterity will not judge kindly.

Civil liberties: Ideally, Obama would rethink various war-on-terrorism-related civil-liberties issues along these same lines -- become a bit less fearful of incremental increases in the probability of a terrorist attack, a bit more mindful of how some of the things you do to slightly reduce that probability in the short run can backire in the long run.

Iran: I've already argued that a second-term Obama will be freer to pursue a negotiated solution to the Iran problem than a first-term Obama (and much freer than a first-term Romney), so I won't rehash the argument here. But I will say that this is one of the most important issues Obama faces -- not just because it would be nice to avoid war, but because a negotiated solution could conceivably be the first step toward rapprochement with Iran, something that would be good for America, good for Israel, and good for Iran. (Yes, it's possible for all to win; international relations is full of non-zero-sum games.)

Israel-Palestine: I have to admit -- and have already admitted -- that I'm pessimistic about the prospects for a two-state solution. But it's not quite impossible. And, anyway, whatever the most plausible path toward resolution of this issue, I have to think it involves restraining some of Bibi Netanyahu's worst impulses, like building more and more settlements in the West Bank. And it's easier to play hard ball with Bibi when you're not worried about re-election.

Climate change: Interestingly, Obama mentioned climate change in his acceptance speech after having largely ducked the issue during the campaign. Now, there may not be a lot he can actually do about climate change without congressional approval. But he can use the bully pulpit to highlight the issue. And for that matter he can negotiate international treaties and challenge the Senate to ratify them.

I could go on. But I've already listed more items than I can realistically expect Obama to focus on with great intensity. And maybe he'll disappoint me and focus on none of them, failing to seize the freedom that a second term affords. But the grandness and energy of his acceptance speech was auspicious. He was already starting to look like a man liberated from the prison of a first term in office.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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