President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address was the most liberal speech he has delivered as president — a blunt summons to wage war on poverty, defend entitlements for the middle class, end “perpetual war” overseas and move past the calibrated progressive agenda of his first term.
Gone were the pleas for bipartisanship of his first inaugural, vaporized by years of partisan battle and Obama’s own sense of a new mandate — achieving bipartisan results through force, not conciliation…
The language came as a relief to liberals, who have long decried Obama’s caution and unwillingness to make a larger case for their views. Atlantic Editor James Fallows, a former White House speechwriter, tweeted that the address was “the most sustainedly ‘progressive’ statement Barack Obama has made in a decade.”
Even that word—progressive—doesn’t quite do the speech justice. That is a euphemism taken on for defensive purposes, when the traditional word for an ideology that believed in robustly using federal power for humanitarian ends—liberalism—came to be used primarily as a weapon against its adherents.
That was one of the most striking elements of Obama’s address: There was nothing defensive about it. He clearly believes that the 2012 election, for all its snarling and divisive tone, served a useful purpose. By his reckoning, it demonstrated that there are more people on his side— immigrants, minorities, liberal-minded young people and women, beneficiaries of big government—than there are on the other side—older whites, cultural traditionalists, wealthy and upper-middle class earners who recoil at what they see as the remorseless expansion of government and resent being stuck with the bill.
President Obama’s second inaugural address won’t be remembered for stirring lines, but then its purpose seemed to be more political than inspirational. Mr. Obama was laying down a marker that he has no intention of letting debt or deficits or lagging economic growth slow his plans for activist, expansive government.
Inaugurals usually include calls for national unity and appeals to our founding principles, which is part of their charm. With the election long over, swearing in a President is a moment for celebrating larger national purposes. But Mr. Obama’s speech was notable for invoking the founding principles less to unify than to justify what he called “collective action.” The President borrowed the Constitution’s opening words of “we the people” numerous times, but his main theme was that the people are fundamentally defined through government action, and his government is here to help you.
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.
This will, no doubt, please the president’s strongest supporters, who are grateful that he has given up the pious balderdash of bipartisanship. They welcome his sharper political edge. They describe him as “wiser,” “wary” and more realistic about the unchangeable obstructionism of his opponents…
This is not a problem if the president is merely one participant among many in a series of zero-sum political battles. But this approach has serious drawbacks if a president is called to play a leadership role in reforms that require both parties to trust each other and take simultaneous risks.
Even so, you could see why comparisons with Ronald Reagan are not so far-fetched. It is not so much that Obama can deliver a decent speech (though he’s not as good a communicator as Reagan was) rather the manner in which he couches his argument. Obama, more than most politicians but rather like Reagan, talks in such a fashion that you suspect he finds it hard to believe that anyone could truly and honestly and decently disagree with him and certainly no intelligent or generous person could. The goodness of his ideas and his intentions is presumed; opposition to them must be predicated upon something sinister. Reagan could speak like this too and, like Obama, he made it seem as though there might be something disagreeable about disagreeing with the President.
So, what does all of this mean, particularly as applied to the Reagan era?
It means that a self-described conservative, Reagan-loving electorate has twice voted for a hardcore leftist, Barack Obama, to, in effect, end the Reagan era. That wasn’t the intent, but that’s the result.
Thus, it also means — and this would shock Ronald Reagan — that we conservatives really cannot trust the American public. Reagan, of course, insisted just the opposite; he was the quintessential optimist, with an unflagging faith in the American people. He had the greatest confidence in his fellow Americans.
The deeper truth, however, is that the American voter cannot be trusted; the American voter cannot be depended upon to vote rationally. Other elements, far more decisive, influence their voting behavior, such as (among others) the personalities and personas and public images of presidential candidates, the campaigns run by the candidates and their advisers (the David Axelrod factor), and, most critically of all, the liberal mainstream media that serves as a 24/7 full-time partisan/propaganda arm of the Democratic Party. In fact, related to that media point: what Ronald Reagan actually said was that if the American public is presented with both sides, it will always make the right choice.
Finally, to all the centrist wise men and reasonable-sounding conservatives — how do you like me now? You said I couldn’t get re-elected unless I was more bipartisan, more moderate, more Clintonian. You blamed me for Washington’s gridlock and assumed the country would as well. You said I should campaign on Simpson-Bowles, of all things, instead of social issues.
Well, guess what? I did it my way, and it worked. I got tax increases without entitlement cuts, I flipped the script on the culture war, and now Marco Rubio is going to help me pass an immigration bill. I’m still up for a grand bargain, but I don’t need one: The economy’s limping back, the deficit should stabilize in the short run, and the long term — well, that’s my successor’s problem. I’d like to win on gun control and climate change, but I’ll settle for making the case and seeing whether a Biden administration (you only think I’m kidding) can finish the job…
And oh, you centrist chin-strokers who kept saying I was no Clinton? You were absolutely right.
I’m the liberal Reagan. Deal with it.
“This man has already done an absolutely remarkable job,” Biden explained praising Obama for passing his healthcare initiative, ending the war in Iraq and supporting gay marriage.
“I want you to know something else about this guy Barack Obama — he’s just getting started,” Biden added. “He’s just getting started.”
Via Greg Hengler.