Obama Starts New Term With Eye on History

President Barack Obama sets out on his second term with a more pragmatic approach toward governing, and his legacy.

President Barack Obama began his second term on Sunday, emboldened by his renewed political capital but still chasing the grand vision he laid out four years ago, when he promised to lead a battered nation on a path to greater hope, unity and prosperity.

The next step in that journey comes at noon Monday, when Obama will stand outside the Capitol, place his left hand on Bibles used by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and take the ceremonial oath of office. He kicked off the historic day by visiting St. John's Episcopal Church with his family. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden also entered the Washington church early Monday morning for mass.

Obama took the official oath of office at 11:55 a.m. Sunday in a private ceremony in the East Room of the White House. That's because Jan. 20, the first day of the presidential term mandated by the Constitution, falls on a Sunday.

For full politics coverage, visit NBCNews.com.

Just a handful of people attended Sunday's ceremony -- including daughter Sasha, who greeted Obama after he took the oath by saying, 'You didn't mess up" --  but more than a half-million people will pack into the National Mall on Monday to cheer him on. It will be an impressive crowd but considerably smaller than the 1.8 million who showed up to witness the inauguration of America's first black president in 2009. Security will be just as tight as it was then, although authorities say there are no credible threats of any attack, terrorist or otherwise.

Obama, still riding his dominant re-election performance and a triumph in the fiscal cliff showdown, will then deliver an inaugural address to a country in need of a good pep talk.

Most Americans remain worried about the economy and see tough times ahead, polls show. And although Obama remains a popular and in many ways transcendent leader, they don't think he's achieved many of the lofty goals he set out for himself in his 2009 inauguration, namely rising above the partisan fray, reversing America's fiscal woes and pulling troops out of Afghanistan.

Obama is expected to address those challenges and remind the country of his most impressive victories, including health care reform, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, while sketching his plans for his remaining time in office.

Spurred by the schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Conn., Obama has put gun control at the top of his agenda, along with reforming immigration and tax laws and taking on climate change. He may choose not to delve into specifics of these plans on Monday, and instead save the details for his State of the Union speech Feb. 12. By then he could very well be engaged in a battle with Congress over the debt limit and automatic spending cuts.

Obama might also make reference to the fact that his second inauguration falls on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, nearly 50 years after the civil rights leader delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech across the mall at the Lincoln Memorial. It would be a reminder that the president is still negotiating his role as a "post-racial" black leader, even as he tries to show African Americans that he remains focused on issues of inequality.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, likened a second inauguration to a couple renewing their wedding vows. "They've had all the fights, they know all the strengths and weaknesses, but they try to fall in love again," Perry said. "After his re-election, the American people want to fall in love with Barack Obama again."

Will Obama aim to make his second term about building an ideological legacy? He is already a transformative president, by virtue of who he is, and what he represents. So he will likely approach the next four years as more of a pragmatist, using his talents as a strategist and tactician to secure meaningful but measured advances from a combative Congress, analysts say.

"Obama has four years of job training under his belt. He has a better sense of what's possible and what's not," Perry said.

In 2009, "he believed more in the hope and change business, and he probably thought he could be more of a change agent in that realm…But I think he's learning how to deal with Congress and in the last few weeks he does seem more aggressive in putting forward new policies, such as gun control."

History is lined with second-term presidents who overestimated their political capital and stumbled, or lost focus and allowed stasis or scandal to set in. Obama, the 20th president—and the third in a row—to serve all or part of a second term, hopes to strike a balance between boldness and prudence.

He'll be working against the clock. Historians warn of a turning point somewhere at the two-year mark where allies and enemies alike begin to think of the next election, and a sitting president's influence begins to wane.

At his first inauguration, with the country reeling from a near-economic meltdown and "a sapping of confidence across our land," Obama told Americans they had "chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord." He called for "a new era of responsibility."

That goal remains a work in progress.

About a third of Americans think the nation is headed in the right direction, and nearly three-quarters don't like where the economy is headed. Democratic pollster Peter Hart told NBC News last week that the results of his latest survey showed that "if 2009 was all about hope, 2013 is about the ability to cope."

But Obama still has a way of inspiring positive vibes. Most Americans say they like him and that he has been a good president.

For his second term, he'll need to draw on that source of goodwill. 

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Contact Us