Divided … Barack Obama has slammed the Republicans for not cooperating on debt issues.There is a photograph of Barack Obama taken almost four years ago. He is in a tiny, wood-lined lift in the White House heading up to the residence for the first time. He and Michelle have just attended 10 inauguration balls. Lifting his chin to loosen his bow tie he looks young and happy, tired and endlessly confident.

He did not know that as he and Michelle slow danced through the night before seas of raised smartphones, the shattered Republican leadership had held a meeting that would help define his presidency.

They gathered in a downtown steakhouse called The Caucus Room. Leading the group was Newt Gingrich, whose hardline, hard-nosed brand of politics had in the 1990s led the Republicans to a majority in the House of Representatives before it collapsed, exhausted by its own overreach.

Many of those present were stunned by the scope of the 2008 Republican defeat. Earlier in the day, they had seen almost 2 million people carpet the National Mall to welcome their new president. They feared they faced a generation in the wilderness.

That very night, according to PBS’s Frontline program, the group, which included the congressional heavyweights Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Jim DeMint, agreed on a simple strategy – ruthless, disciplined opposition to everything and anything Obama proposed.

The following morning in the White House, Obama returned to work on the stimulus package his team was preparing to try to stave off what many feared would be a new Great Depression. Their transition briefings had been horrifying. One of them, an economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, told Frontline he recalled saying to Obama, ”Wow that has to be the worst briefing a new president has had in almost a century.”

”That’s not even the worst briefing I have had this week,” Obama replied.

Determined to keep his promise to end the partisanship gripping Washington, Obama put together a proposal for a $900 billion stimulus package, much of it in the form of tax cuts designed to appeal to Republicans.

In a further display of amity, he left the White House and travelled up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol to sell the proposal to Republicans.

He need not have bothered. They had already decided to oppose the proposal, just as they did later when Obama tried to win bipartisan support for healthcare reform.

The blanket opposition allowed Republicans to blame Obama for the flat economy, while using the spectre of socialist Obamacare death panels to gin up a large enough opposition to defeat the Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections.

It was an effective strategy. As the economy languished and fury grew at the bailout of Wall Street and the banks, the Tea Party evolved and directed its often inchoate rage not at the traditional allies of big business – the Republicans – but at Obama.

In the mid-term elections, the Republicans won back the House, and rather than simply voicing their opposition to Obama’s causes, they were now able to block Democratic legislation.

Obama, known around the world for his soaring rhetoric, proved a reluctant participant in the face-to-face politics, and failed to win over any Republican support. To the disappointment of many in his own caucus, he retreated to the White House, leaving the split Congress to try to settle their economic differences. They never managed to pass a budget after the mid-term elections, though the House found the time to pass legislation repealing Obamacare 33 times.

By the time he began his race for re-election, Obama had given up on any ideas he might have had about ending the division. Just as Republican candidates sought to best each other in reaching out to GOP’s right-wing base – often by railing against abortion rights and immigration reform – Obama declared in an early appearance that if he said it was night time, Republicans would say it was daytime.

Meanwhile, his Chicago headquarters quietly went about stitching together a coalition of constituencies ignored by Republicans – Latinos, blacks, women and youth.

You could hear the shock in one of the key voices of white middle America on election night when it became obvious that Obama had won.

”The white establishment is now the minority,” lamented Bill O’Reilly during Fox News’s election coverage. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. An overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things, and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things? The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America any more.”

That night, not only did Obama keep the White House and the Senate, but also the Democrats whittled away the Republican lead in the House. (they outpolled the Republicans by more than 1 million votes, but failed to win control because of gerrymandering.) The Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, viewed this as a status quo result; Obama as a mandate.

Instead of enjoying the once traditional inauguration ceasefire, Obama threatened Boehner he would use his inaugural address and the coming State of the Union speech to blame the Republicans if they failed to come to the table during the ”fiscal cliff” talks, The Wall Street Journal reported.

And on Monday, Obama gave his last press conference of the first term, using the leisurely hour-long performance to smack Republicans about for their threat to refuse to raise the debt ceiling – the authorisation Congress must give the government to pay its debt.

“[Republicans] have two choices here: they can act responsibly and pay America’s bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy … and they better choose quickly, because time is running short.”

On Wednesday, Obama got tough on guns. No one who saw him speak at the memorial in Sandy Hook last month could doubt he believes this is good policy, but it is also anathema to the Republicans, and particularly to the southern base that Obama’s coalition defeated in November.

Once the debt ceiling crisis is resolved, it appears likely that Obama will tackle immigration reform – an area where, by happy coincidence, good policy might meet good politics for Democrats. Obama wants to introduce measures that will ”create pathways to citizenship” for some of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US.

This brings a generation in from the dark – many of whom have been born and raised in the US – but it would also split the Republican Party. Many GOP supporters from the southern and western states cannot support the measure without being killed off in the primaries, while the party leadership knows it faces a structural minority if it alienates the Hispanic vote.

Meanwhile, the President will be working to secure his legacy by bedding down his healthcare reforms, one of the policies that contributed to the savage division in America that exists today.

It is hard to imagine this rift in US politics will be healed soon. The two parties have vast ideological differences. Obama believes the debt and deficit can only be tackled once the economy has been restored through economic stimulus. He has yet to propose any significant cuts to the automatic spending that soaks up half the budget in welfare and health programs.

The Republicans, especially those elected in the 2010 Tea Party revolution, believe cutting spending and shrinking government is their first duty.

Then there is the matter of race, a topic that was far more a part of the national discussion in the days before the last inauguration.

Charlton McIlwain, a New York University professor and author of a book on race in American politics, believes Obama’s re-election is even more significant than his first victory.

“Had he not been re-elected, I think the significance of his and the country’s racial achievement would have been nullified, seen as an aberration. His reelection affirms the notion that non-whites can legitimately attain such political heights. It gives credence to the notion that we have made progress on race as a nation.”

But McIlwain is not optimistic that the coming term will be less acrimonious than the first.

“I think division is inevitable and will likely be exacerbated during the second term. Obama will likely be more far reaching in what he attempts to achieve, drawing even greater opposition from a Congress that is already sharply divided along party and ideological lines.

“Like the healthcare debate from the first term, opposition in the second will likely be tinged with both explicit and implicit racial rhetoric. The NRA’s head [Wayne] LaPierre’s reference to Obama as elitist is one recent example of steps in this direction.”

(The subtext, he explains, is that forceful white leaders are seen as tough, while strong black ones are often described as arrogant or elitist, another way of saying uppity.)

It is hard to even conceive the self-belief Obama must have felt the last time he walked under the Capitol’s dome, down the narrow corridors and passageways to the inauguration stage. Just four years earlier, he had been an unknown Illinois politician.

When he retraces his steps on Monday, he will be more battered and tarnished, certainly more grey. Rather than seeking to heal and unify his country, he will be wanting to keep his enemies in view and his friends at his back.

As a RealClearPolitics headline put it this week, there will be No More Mr Nice President.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.