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Obama is a lame duck who knows how to quack

ElectionsBarack ObamaChuck HagelGeorge W. BushRepublican Party

It's sometimes said that a lame-duck president is a weakened leader from the first day of his last term. The two-term limit of the 22nd Amendment, imposed by wrathful Republicans in 1951 in response to FDR's breach of the George Washington tradition, is supposedly a political kiss of death against achieving future goals.

But President Barack Obama, in his second inaugural address and then in his State of the Union Address starting his second term, issued a blunt pushback against the lame-duck sentence. Concerning both domestic and foreign policies, he has served notice that he has no intention of being a mere seat-warmer over his next four years.

His call for a revitalization of American manufacturing as the engine of economic recovery and heightened employment at home, producing tangible goods rather than just services, seeks to awaken the slumbering giant and silenced smokestacks of the Rust Belt.

Along with it, his reiterated call for mass infrastructure rebuilding and repair of American roads, rails and bridges is an obvious if still-neglected ingredient.

At the same time, Mr. Obama has committed to harnessing the deregulated financial sector that during the presidency George W. Bush ran roughshod over the nation's commerce. The result has been widening inequality between the rich and the middle- and lower-income classes, which will be a major challenge to Mr. Obama to narrow.

Abroad, he has pledged to finish returning America to a clear partnership role in achieving international peace after eight years of Bush's adventurism in the Middle East. After justifiably using American military might to respond to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Mr. Bush before finishing the job pivoted to his unnecessary war of choice against Iraq, leaving both tasks undone.

Mr. Obama was able to report that the state of the Union included near-completion of that chore in Iraq and the current phased withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan. He was turning, he indicated, to the unfinished work of al-Qaida suppression in new breeding grounds in the Middle East and Africa.

To the disappointment and even dismay of many conservatives in both parties, this pragmatic Democratic president has begun to peel back from nation-building commitments abroad, to a more limited and collective response in trouble spots through NATO and UN membership.

He has restricted that commitment to moral and humanitarian support in Syria, citing concern about sending arms that could fall into the wrong hands. It is a decision in which he rejected the recommendations of top military and national-security advisers. That declaration of leadership in itself underscored that Mr. Obama in his second term has no intention of being a weakened lame duck in the Oval Office.

He still professes a willingness to do business with the Republican congressional leadership that largely stiffed him in his first term. But the re-elected president has been much more assertive in insisting that the Republicans join in avoiding the approaching budget sequester, figuring they stand to take most of the blame if they don't.

In key second-term cabinet shuffling, President Obama has nominated a number of men — particularly John Kerry at the State Department, Jack Lew at Treasury, and Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon — who share his vision of a United States that has global but limited responsibilities, and must finally turn its sights more inward to a society in need of succor and repair at home.

Mr. Obama's nomination of Mr. Hagel to be secretary of defense was much more than a gesture of bipartisanship to a former Republican senator. Mr. Hagel has been a hard-nosed critic of what he once called a "bloated" military but also is a combat-hardened Vietnam War enlisted man. If finally confirmed, he promises to be a strong Obama ally in coming Pentagon fights over imperative budget cuts, while remaining mindful of the requirements of a streamlined national defense.

This second-term president is reorganizing his administration to take a more aggressive posture than in the last four years, in quest of a legacy that remains unestablished. He also seems armed through his re-election with a renewed sense of the political power he retains, and with a determination to use it in defiance of any supposed lame-duck inhibitions.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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