While such occasions are reliably light on substance, the put-up-or-shut-up tone of President Obama’s second inaugural address yesterday was pretty unmistakable. With hardly a concerned mention of jobs, the struggling economy, or our monstrous debt, the president also conspicuously neglected to acknowledge the inherent troubles of our metastasized entitlement state — but did go to great pains to defend and celebrate it, taking what sounded an awful lot like a direct shot at his erstwhile campaign opponents:
But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
That doesn’t much sound like President Obama is ready or willing to take Republicans’ suggestions for entitlement reform in good faith — and Rep. Paul Ryan was not pleased with the suggestion. The WFB snagged the audio from a morning radio interview:
No one is suggesting that what we call are ‘earned entitlements’, entitlements you pay for, you know, like payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security, are putting you in a ‘taker’ category. No one suggests that whatsoever. The concern that people like me have been raising is we do not want to encourage a dependency culture. This is why we called for welfare reform. This is what welfare reform in 1996 was. This was what the new rounds for welfare reform we’re calling for do, which is to increase social mobility, economic opportunity, self-responsibility, those kinds of things. But earned entitlements, where you pay your payroll taxes to get a benefit when you retire, like Social Security and Medicare, are not taker programs. And I think when the president does kind of a switcheroo like that, what he’s trying to say is we are maligning these programs, that people have earned throughout their working lives. And so it’s kind of a convenient twist of terms to try and shadowbox a straw man in order to win an argument by default, is essentially what that rhetorical device is that he uses over and over and over.
Michael Gerson struck much the same note in his inaugural-response column; the “post-partisan” president seems mighty ready to go no-holds-barred on mischaracterizing Republicans’ aims on not merely entitlement reform, but everything else besides:
Those who oppose this agenda, in Obama’s view, are not a very admirable lot. They evidently don’t want our wives, mothers and daughters to “earn a living equal to their efforts.” They would cause some citizens “to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” They mistake “absolutism for principle” and “substitute spectacle for politics” and “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” They would have people’s “twilight years . . . spent in poverty” and ensure that the parents of disabled children have “nowhere to turn.” They would reserve freedom “for the lucky” and believe that Medicare and Social Security “sap our initiative,” and they see this as “a nation of takers.” They “deny the overwhelming judgment of science” on climate change, don’t want love to be “equal” and apparently contemplate “perpetual war.”
For Abraham Lincoln, even the gravest national crimes involved shared fault. For Obama, even the most commonplace policy disagreements indicate the bad faith of his opponents. In his first inaugural address, George Washington described the “sacred fire of liberty.” In his second, Obama constructed a raging bonfire of straw men.