America’s giant national lawn party has just finished, and the work crews are well into disassembling the temporary seating decks, barricades and television camera stands, and restoring the National Mall, which stretches from the Capitol Building to the Washington Monument, to its normal beauty. Simultaneously, editorial writers, commentators and analysts are hard at work, deconstructing and teasing out the meaning and implications of Barack Obama’s second inaugural address. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
What did he really mean through his words in his speech, and what is he trying, or hoping, to achieve? Not surprisingly, across the nation and around the world, commentators differed in their assessments of Obama’s inaugural address. Some criticised him for taking too partisan a tone. Others insisted, by contrast, that his vision, as he had set it in his speech on Monday, was too general and anodyne.
In The Washington Post, EJ Dionne argued Obama used his speech to make the case that government must do certain key tasks that are central to our time. In Dionne’s view, Obama’s speech fell right into the tradition of the inaugural speeches delivered by Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan; it was “unapologetic in offering an argument for his philosophical commitments and an explanation of the policies that naturally followed.”
Dionne wrote, “Progressives will be looking back to this speech for many years, much as today’s progressives look back to FDR’s, and conservatives to Reagan’s.”
Obama used this special moment to argue that, contrary to the belief of Republican conservatives, social insurance programmes encourage rather than discourage risk-taking and make the country a more, not less, dynamic society. Or, as Obama said, “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.” Rooting this view in the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the words of Abraham Lincoln and the thoughts of Martin Luther King, Obama made his case, Dionne argued, by “basing it on a long, shared American tradition.”
To argue that Obama should have searched for a lofty, abstract, non-partisan ground would to have ignored the political trench warfare of the past four years. As Dionne wrote, “Neither Roosevelt nor Reagan gave in to such counsel of philosophical timidity, and both of their speeches are worth rereading in light of Obama’s.
For example, Roosevelt said, “We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it. [W]e recognised a deeper need – the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilisation… We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”
Ronald Reagan, for his part, said, “In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed. It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.”
Clearly neither of these two presidents had retreated to bland, comforting generalities. Dionne closed his argument, writing, Monday’s speech had liberated Obama to be “more at ease declaring exactly what he is for and what he is seeking to achieve.”
Meanwhile, at the New York Times, the paper’s resident moderate conservative thinker, David Brooks, was uncertain Obama’s speech had transformed the language of the country’s political scenery very much. He argued, that, yes, the president’s speech already ranks as one of the best of the past 50 years and, yes, it had made a clear argument for pragmatic and patriotic progressivism. As Brooks wrote, “Obama made his case beautifully. He came across as a prudent, nonpopulist progressive. But I’m not sure he rescrambled the debate. We still have one party that talks the language of government and one that talks the language of the market. We have no party that is comfortable with civil society, no party that understands the ways government and the market can both crush and nurture community, no party with new ideas about how these things might blend together. But at least the debate is started. Maybe that new wind will come.”
By contrast, the Politico website’s Carrie Budoff Brown was less sanguine about the effect of Obama’s words. She argued that while Barack Obama had insisted four years earlier that the US needed to make hard choices to save the nation’s social welfare entitlement programmes, in Monday’s speech, any such hard choices came with one really big caveat: “He’s not willing to give up much.”
In Budoff Brown’s view, while Obama has “done just enough to earn credit for trying harder than any other Democratic president to tackle the issue, but he has yet to throw the full weight of his office or his formidable campaign operation behind it. His best chance will come early in his second term as lawmakers confront a series of budget battles, but Obama appears more ready to spend his political capital on guns, immigration and climate change.”
Moreover, “The president has never precisely defined what hard choices he would be willing to make on Medicare and Social Security. It’s not even clear what he would do if he had the power to remake the programmes on his own, without worrying about opposition from Republicans or Democrats.” But, “Unless Obama seizes the opportunity in the next few months, entitlement reform will hang over his second term, lurking like a legacy-killer if he hands off the task to the next president, deficit hawks warn.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times editorial on the inaugural speech said that while “President Obama’s first inaugural address offered a clear and bracing vision for a way out of the depth of an economic crisis and two foreign wars. His second, on Monday, revealed less of his specific plans for the next four years but more of his political philosophy.” Obama had “rejected any argument that the American people can be divided into groups whose interests are opposed to each other. The choice is not ‘between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,’ he said. ‘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.’ ”
The editors argued Obama was correctly taking his fight right to the country, “laying out his principles and priorities: addressing the threat of climate change, embracing sustainable energy sources, ensuring equality of gays and lesbians, expanding immigration and equal pay for women. Disappointingly, the need for stricter gun controls was noted solely in a reference to the safety of children in places like Newtown, Conn.” And in foreign policy, the president had set out an appropriate role for the country, when he said, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
The Times concluded it is natural for a president to begin contemplating his place in history at the beginning of a second term and that through this speech “he has made a forceful argument for a progressive agenda that meets the nation’s needs. We hope he has the political will and tactical instincts to carry it out.”
Meanwhile, finding signs of continued Washington fractiousness, China’s official news service, Xinhua, had said, “US President Barack Obama on Monday kicked off his second term by laying out a liberal agenda for the next four years, signalling a continuation of bitter partisan rancour with a staunchly conservative GOP.” Xinhua quoted Brookings Institution think-tank specialist Darrell West that Obama “drew lines in the sand and will dare Republicans to fight him. He thinks Democrats can win with the public if the GOP refuses to support him. As we move forward, there will be lots of contentiousness in American politics.”
The BBC’s Mark Mardell said that while Beyoncé had half-stolen the whole show with her rousing version of the national anthem, in his speech, the president “made a bold attempt to link his vision with that of the founding fathers, to put his plans for the next four years in a philosophical framework,” in contrast to the frequent Republican charge he is trying to turn the country into a new, strange landscape.
Nonetheless, Mardell wrote, “There was little of compromise in this speech. He went out of his way to mention issues which enrage those who voted against him – climate change, immigration, gun control and gay rights.” While foreign affairs barely got a look-see, Mardell commented Obama’s talk about ending two wars received a big cheer from the throng. Summing up, the BBC’s commentator added that while celebrations are on order in DC for a brief while, “for Mr Obama there will be no backing down from his agenda, in all its controversial detail.”
Edward Luce, writing in the Financial Times argued that this speech was no abstract paen of praise to the country’s democratic ideals. Rather, “the real meat of the speech – or at least its inner voice – was more immediate in its implications than the highfalutin’ address Mr Obama delivered four years ago. And at just 16 minutes, it was considerably punchier. In 2009, Mr Obama sought to rally a nation’s spirit to the immense economic crisis it faced. There was a sense that America’s great political battles were somehow behind it. The oratory was abstract and his imagery was bound up with epochal storms and battles with the wintry elements. In 2009 he pronounced an end to the politics of “petty recrimination”. In 2013 he called for it. For all its constitutional high talk, Mr Obama’s second inaugural address was more political. Inside the loftiness was an agenda that was strikingly liberal in its core message.”
And The Economist’s Lexington columnist explained just how this agenda would be pursued. Arguing Obama is much closer to a European liberal than a socialist, Lexington wrote, “Mr Obama’s inaugural speech, delivered this morning beneath a bright, chilly Washington sky, offered a remarkably stark answer. He plans to confront Republicans, co-opt their most cherished beliefs about American exceptionalism and individualism, pin them into a corner with the power of public opinion and – in the longer-term – to marginalise them by building his party a progressive coalition from such diverse groups as women, ethnic minorities, gays, the young, immigrants and environmentalists.”
Picking up on these environmental themes, The Hill, the insider paper circulated read by those working in Congress or who watch it closely, noted, “President Obama devoted a significant portion of his second inaugural speech Monday to climate change, comments that quickly fueled environmentalists’ calls for aggressive second-term actions from a White House that has not provided a specific agenda.”
And the AP, in its report, focused on Obama’s comments about the deficit. The news service’s reporter said, “it was the paragraph that followed [the use of the word ‘deficit’] in his inaugural address that foreshadowed what’s to come – more hard bargaining and more last-minute deals driven by Obama’s own conviction that he now wields an upper hand.”
On that same theme, the Mercury News (the paper of Silicon Valley) added, “Surprisingly, the president [also] made a strong pledge to address climate change, promising a shift to alternative energy sources and new technologies – and tying that firmly to the nation’s history and the founders’ ideals: ‘That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure… That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.’” By contrast to those approving tones, Charles Krauthammer, speaking on FoxNewsTV, said, “Today’s inaugural address was a rebuke to that entire idea. This speech today was an ode to big government, it was a hymn to big government.”
But in contrast to many usually more reliable Obama supporters, Dana Milbank, in the Washington Post, criticised the president, saying, “Obama used the most visible platform any president has to decry global-warming skeptics who ‘still deny the overwhelming judgment of science.’ He quarrelled with Republicans who say entitlement programmes ‘make us a nation of takers.’ He condemned the foreign policy of his predecessor by saying that ‘enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.’”
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, perhaps summing up the spread of the initial judgments, wrote, “Obama’s speech was infinitely better, more self-assured, more politically precise than his first. This was Barack Obama without apology – a liberal emboldened by political victory and a desire to enter the history books with a progressive agenda… Gone is the primacy of compromise, which marked Obama’s days as president of the Harvard Law Review and even his first years in office. He no longer seems determined to transcend ideology or partisanship; experience has led him toward an engagement with politics in a tougher, clearer way… There were countless touchstones of this clear liberal agenda: the association of the 1969 Stonewall [gay rights] demonstrations with the 1965 black-freedom march in Selma and the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York…” But while this speech will not stand shoulder to shoulder with Lincoln’s magisterial second inaugural address or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech of 1963, it will, nevertheless, come to be seen as among the “most important American political addresses of the modern era.”
But now, of course, comes the hard part. Now comes the hard bargaining and gloves-off politics once Congress returns to work, the president gives his State of the Union speech and his budget message, and the sharp elbows, pushing, shoving and the eyeball-to-eyeball staring contests that typify today’s version of American politics take centre stage. DM
Photo: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, wearing a Jason Wu dress, dances with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Commander in Chief’s ball in Washington, January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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