President Obama had just finished his fiercely partisan and pragmatic inaugural address when he turned back to the crowd and gave it a wistful gaze. "I want to take a look one more time," he said. "I'm not going to see this again."
The remark reflected the cruel duel nature of a president's final inauguration: He is both at the peak of his political powers and in certain decline.
Obama is fresh off a decisive reelection victory, his approval rating is above 50 percent, and he delivered a widely praised inaugural address that defended an ambitious liberal agenda.
From gay rights and women's rights to Medicare, Social Security, income equality, social mobility, the national debt, and climate change, the president linked his approach to the nation's founding principles. Even conservative commentators called it a rhetorical success; David Brooks of The New York Times said the speech "surely has to rank among the best of the past half-century."
The president was able to dismiss, at least for a day, the harsh realities of presiding over a divided government and facing obstructionist rivals. "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle," Obama said, "or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."
Oh, but they will: Republicans as well as Democrats in Washington are drunk on partisanship, hostage to a political structure built to reward extremism and reject compromise as capitulation. In this environment, it is understandable why Obama chose to reject the post-partisan, problem-solving brand that he rode to the White House four years ago.
In its place is exactly what liberal allies wanted. Chastened by four years in Washington, Obama has decided to fight partisan fire with fire. Surely it feels good, but will it work?
Politics is the delicate art of compromise: Two warring factions solving problems by finding ways in which all sides can declare victory. It is not, as Obama said, the work of absolutists. Which is why he needs to walk the narrow line between confidence and hubris, or otherwise he won't get anything through the GOP-controlled House.
History doesn't make excuses. If Obama's agenda fails because Republicans don't bow to his demands, that will be on him. He has to work with or around the GOP. Apparently, he's chosen the latter.
What happened to the idealistic young politician who argued against dividing the country into red and blue Americas? It seems we're not going to see him again.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.