Barack Obama's swearing in for a second term as US president was appropriately subdued compared with the festive merry-making when he took office four years ago. The hope and optimism of then have been replaced by the understanding that change, no matter how much it is sought by Americans, will not come easily. But however deep the political divisions or seemingly insurmountable his challenges, he will nonetheless have his eye on creating a legacy. It best lies in his country becoming China's partner.
Ambitious domestic priorities have already been laid out by Obama. The US$16 trillion national debt is by far his biggest, followed by dealing with illegal immigration and gun violence. With each, his liberal Democratic Party has to find common ground with the conservative opposition Republicans, the sides at loggerheads over the role of government. Of most concern is the fiscal fight, narrowly avoided as the new year began, but a fresh budget showdown looms next month over spending cuts.
Making inroads to balancing the books would go a way to assuring Obama a legacy - but that largely depends on his delivering a still-unfulfilled promise to open a bipartisan era of problem-solving. Unless that can be attained, the US will continue along a path that will eventually end in it going broke. For the sake of the economy as well as international perceptions, the president has to strive as best he can to put his country's fiscal house in order. But while doing so, he also has to reach out to China's new leadership.
A meeting with Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping , who takes over as president in mid-March, would be a good place to start. There is every reason that this should happen: there can be no more important bilateral relationship in the world than that between China and the US. They need each other for economic well-being and continued growth and development, while peace and stability in East Asia is reliant on their co-operation. Suspicions abound, particularly since Obama's announcement in October 2011 of America's strategic pivot to Asia: his reaching out a hand of friendship at the start of his second term would be the right gesture.
The meetings would have to be more frequent than in the past and be supported by strengthened bilateral gatherings at all levels. Far greater attention has to be paid to military-to-military contacts and co-operation. Only by moving beyond the rhetoric of old can there be a hope of a legacy of partnership.