I was moved to hear our normally politically pragmatic president boldly affirm liberal principles in his second inaugural address. No more rhetorical post-partisanship or indulging in outreach to Republicans, who have only bitten and gnawed at rather than grasped his extended hand during the first term.
In his address Obama articulated a commitment to collective action as a basis of preserving individual freedom-affirming, proactive, interventionist government — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — as an assertion of traditional American values: “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” He went on to project a clear liberal vision of advancing gay rights (invoking past struggles for women's and civil rights) showing more tolerance toward illegal immigrants, acting to stop climate change and condemning the efforts to restrict voting.
He may not have directly attacked the corporations and Wall Street, but he acknowledged the value to our society of caring for the poorest and most vulnerable. This was no populist ode to the people versus the vested interests, but a commitment to change linked to the best of American traditional beliefs like equality, altruism and moral responsibility.
If the address wasn't original, it still was an eloquent speech, one that a knowledgeable friend called “the best progressive statement of a president since FDR.” We must wait for Obama's State of the Union address to see how he sees some of these principles being realized through legislation.
I'm not too sanguine about the political future. Republican conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer called the speech an “ode to big government,” and as usual harped on the deficit. Paul Krugman, who points out that David Cameron's austerity policies have thrown gotten Great Britain into a deeper recession, has constantly attacked the Washington debt obsession, which is always used to promote draconian cuts in social spending. He holds:
“Yes, debt matters. But right now, other things matter more. We need more, not less, government spending to get us out of our unemployment trap. And the wrongheaded, ill-informed obsession with debt is standing in the way.”
Others felt the speech divisive and the tone-deaf Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said, “I wasn't surprised that it doesn't sound like he's particularly interested in working with Republicans and actually solving the big problems facing this nation.” Of course, an utter inversion of what occurred during the first term.
I have a feeling there will be some incremental movement on immigration, gun control and even climate change. But when it comes to economic equality and regulation of financial institutions there will be pitched battles and the Republican control of the House and the threat of a filibuster in the Senate will prevent any real change from occurring.
Still, it was a luminous moment, and I loved watching a defiant, unambiguously liberal Obama in action. I hope he can sustain that tone during the next few years and attempt to realize some of the principles he declaimed.