Barack Obama made history a second time by being the first black American to be re-elected to the White House. However, his inaugural address and some of his more recent statements give a sense of how the US president would really like to see himself be written about in the history books. This is as a national leader who fundamentally made his country more liberal — more open, more egalitarian and more humane.
He became the first US president to speak about homosexuals and all but embraced gay marriage. Mr Obama had already laid out an ambition gun control legislative agenda before the inauguration. He declared the welfare State, including his own expansion of healthcare, to be off limits and spoke of the need to expand public services like education. Finally, he laid out an immigration reform that would embrace even illegal migrants residing in the US. The only sense of anything proactively international on his second-term agenda was the resurrection of climate change. Otherwise, Mr Obama indicated that the US, after “a decade of war,” would be seeking a foreign policy of less international engagement, a lot more outsourcing of global security to other nations and generally bringing home the troops. It is no surprise that he has reportedly looked to the presidency of Dwight D Eisenhower for inspiration. All of this is understandable. The US is weighed down by a remarkable set of economic problems. Mr Obama is looking to create a legacy. Given that his primary interests have always been at home rather than abroad and the tight fiscal situation he has inherited, seeking change in the form of social and ethical issues makes perfect sense.
But a US that is busy tending home fires and inspecting its ledgers is not necessarily good for the rest of the world. India is already fretting about the consequences of an overly hasty US retreat from Afghanistan. The Asia-Pacific region worries about the US’s back and forth relationship with China and its on-and-off support for its own treaty allies. Most of the world will laud Mr Obama’s focus on repairing the US’s capacities. Some of its more progressive elements will be pleased at the idea of the US once more becoming a global bellwether for liberal values. But the sense that Mr Obama is rolling up his sleeves to confront his right-wing opponents will be even more reason to expect Washington’s worldview to shrink to its own boundaries in the next three years. This is alarming in the sense that there is no sense that Mr Obama has any real thoughts about what the global fallout of a US withdrawal from much of the world will have. There is still only one superpower and it is unclear who will be prepared to fill in the spaces that it will start to leave vacant.