The country needs a president who can do more than advance, incrementally, a partisan agenda. An Obama who could somehow rally the country to restructure Medicare and Social Security so they can endure through the 21st century might be a great president. But Obama moved in another direction Monday.
There were some quite surreal moments when Mr Obama seemed to be channelling Gordon Brown at his most self-congratulatory. Specifically rejecting the notion that America “must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future” (that is, we can afford to support both the old and the young), he said: “For we… understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” Ah, yes – remember that refrain: we will govern for the many, not the few? Which turned out to be a euphemism for high tax, high-spend economics, galloping entitlements and an epidemic of welfare dependency? Warning to America: it didn’t work out.
Mr Obama made no attempt to explain how support at both these ends of the age range was going to be afforded. Or what effect his insistence that the most expensive entitlement programmes – social security, Medicare and Medicaid – were untouchable would have on the US deficit. Hard economic fact could be countered by ideological passion: “[These entitlements] do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.” Well, maybe. But they have to be paid for with hard cash – by somebody. Presumably that problem will have to wait for the coming stand-off with Congress over the debt ceiling.
Fiscal fitness, Mr. President
It’s time for Obama to publicly lead the charge on cutting costs while preserving government benefits where they’re needed.
[Senator] Chambliss criticized anti-tax activist Grover Norquist in November, saying he cared about his country more than him. “Norquist has no plan to pay this debt down. His plan says you continue to add to the debt, and I just have a fundamental disagreement about that and I’m willing to do the right thing and let the political consequences take care of themselves,” he said at the time.
No olive branch from president
On the eve of Inauguration Day, White House political strategist David Plouffe promised that President Barack Obama’s inaugural address would include a call for bipartisan cooperation.
“He is going to say that our political system does not require us to resolve all of our differences or settle all of our disputes, but it is absolutely imperative that our leaders try and seek common ground,” Plouffe said on ABC.
But it was hard to find that outstretched hand in the inaugural speech Obama gave Monday.
In 19 minutes, Obama delivered an eloquent, powerful and often combative summary of his values as a progressive Democrat who believes that an activist federal government helps make America great.
As the President is sworn in for his second term, several critical commentators have alighted on the issue of his management skills. And on these, something like a consensus is emerging, in which it’s commonly said that he doesn’t really have any.
IS BARACK OBAMA A LOUSY MANAGER?
Writing in the New York Times, David Rothkopf argues that it’s not just Congress that Obama has been lousy at managing, it’s the Oval Office too: “The administration has not done a good job of delegating to and empowering cabinet officials. Nor does it seem to have built necessary teams and coalitions or anticipated and planned for likely challenges. The Obama team’s failure to make the most of stimulus funding, to make progress on climate change, react swiftly to international crises in Egypt, Libya and Syria, and to maintain good relations with allies on Capitol Hill and beyond stem from lack of managerial skill.”
Preaching to the choir
By Dana Milbank, Published: January 21
President Obama began his second inaugural address with a reminder that this ceremony, like the 56 inaugurations before it in U.S. history, was a unifying symbol.
“Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution,” he said from the West Front of the Capitol, his voice echoing across the Mall, where hundreds of thousands of people waved American flags. “We affirm the promise of our democracy.”
Thus ended the warm-courage-of-national-unity portion of the proceedings.
What followed was less an inaugural address for the ages than a leftover campaign speech combined with an early draft of the State of the Union address. Obama used the most visible platform any president has to decry global-warming skeptics who “still deny the overwhelming judgment of science.” He quarreled with Republicans who say entitlement programs “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.”
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” the president informed his opponents.
Not that they were listening.
George W. Bush declined to join former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter at the ceremony (Bush’s father missed it, too, although he has been in poor health.) Mitt Romney sent regrets and, it appeared, the vast majority of House Republicans skipped the proceedings as well.
With Republican citizens also shunning the event, the crowd gave huge cheers for liberal favorites — John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, the Clintons, Sonia Sotomayor — and hardly a peep when Lamar Alexander, a Senate GOP leader, gave a magnanimous speech about the moment, “our most conspicuous and enduring symbol of the American democracy. . .this freedom to vote for our leaders, and the restraint to respect the results.”
Obama’s main event was full of crowd-pleasing lines about equal pay, same-sex marriage, poll access, immigration, gun control and health care. Although it tied together the various elements of his agenda, it failed to rise to the moment.
The president read from the founding documents (“We hold these truths to be self- evident”), echoed John F. Kennedy (“This generation of Americans has been tested by crises”), and even tossed in a Neville Chamberlain phrase (“peace in our time”) and some Hallmark sentiment (“Embrace with solemn duty, and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright”). However, the emphasis was unusually political for an inaugural address. Obama reminded his opponents that his oath of office, “like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction.”
But if the speech wasn’t as grand or as memorable as previous addresses, perhaps that’s not entirely a bad thing. In his first term, Obama was undone by impossibly high expectations. This time, expectations are quite low that he can do much to change the grim state of Washington. With a lower hurdle to clear, Obama’s pedestrian rhetoric and tough words for his opponents gave Americans a fair sense of what to expect in the coming years.
The lower altitude fit the day well. The crowd was big and enthusiastic — a sea of red, white and blue flags extended back almost to 14th Street, but nothing like the euphoric celebration of four years ago. High clouds blocked the sun and a cold wind chilled the spectators. Chief Justice John Roberts got the oath of office right this time, although Myrlie Evers-Williams, in her invocation, declared Obama the 45th president (he remains the 44th).
James Taylor, who performed at the Democratic National Convention, got a prime spot in the lineup in between the swearings-in of Vice President Biden and Obama; he performed “America the Beautiful” — the song Romney famously sang during the campaign, mocked in an Obama TV ad.
Capping the less-than-historic feel of the moment, “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” “Wow,” said the emcee, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), when he returned to the microphone.
There was less wow in the address that preceded Clarkson. Obama teased the crowd with a theme of unity: “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.” But his “we the people” theme turned out to be more of a campaign retread. “We the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” he said. “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.”
And we the people accept that we live in an era of diminished oratory.
A flat, partisan and pedestrian speech
Obama’s unapologetic inaugural address
Posted by E.J. Dionne Jr. on January 21, 2013 at 5:45 pm
President Obama used his inaugural address to make a case – a case for a progressive view of government, and a case for the particular things that government should do in our time.
He gave a speech in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural and Ronald Reagan’s first: Like both, Obama’s was unapologetic in offering an argument for his philosophical commitments and an explanation of the policies that naturally followed. 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 will be seen as combative in his direct refutation of certain conservative ideas, and it was especially good to see him argue — in a passage that rather pointedly alluded to Paul Ryan’s worldview — that social insurance programs encourage rather than discourage risk-taking and make us a more, not less, dynamic society. “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” he said. “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” This is one of the most important arguments liberals have made since FDR’s time, and in the face of an aggressive attack now on the very idea of a social insurance state, it was important that Obama make it again.
Yet the president pitched his case by basing it on a long, shared American tradition. He rooted his egalitarian commitments in the promises of our founding. The Declaration of Independence was the driving text– as it was for Martin Luther King, whom we also celebrated today, and as it was for Abraham Lincoln.
Obama’s refrain “We, the people” reminded us that “we” is the very first word of our Constitution and that a commitment to community and the common good is as American Washington, Adams and Jefferson. The passages invoking that phrase spoke of shared responsibility – “we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.” Obama said a powerful “no” to radical individualism (a point my colleague Greg Sargent made well earlier today in the course of a kind and generous reference to my book “Our Divided Political Heart”).
Some will no doubt think (and write) that Obama should have sought more lofty and non-partisan ground. The problem with this critique is that it asks Obama to speak as if the last four years had not happened. It asks him to abandon the arguments he has been making for nearly two years. It asks us to pretend that we do not have a great deal at stake in the large debate over government’s role that we have been having over an even longer period.
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.
“We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it,”Roosevelt declared. “[W]e recognized 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 civilization. . . . We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”
“In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem,” Reagan said. “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.”
An expansive case for progressive governance, grounded in language of Founding Fathers
Really, that’s it, Mr. President?
Posted by Jennifer Rubin on January 21, 2013 at 12:46 pm
If there had been any doubt, the president’s
second inaugural address did confirm he is a dogged collectivist with little appreciation for the dangers we face in the world. After some overwritten references to the Founding Fathers he proclaimed that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Really? Economic prosperity may require it. The goal of economic equality may need it. Advancement in mass transit may demand it. But personal freedoms are obtained by limited government, the rule of law and a free market (relatively speaking) where one can achieve his aims and fulfill his personal goals. But this is not the America President Obama envisions.
His aversion to making hard choices about entitlements was obvious: “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. 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.” Really, taking away Social Security for poor people is simply an Obama straw man in the forest of them, which castigates his opponents as the enemy of the downtrodden and relieves him of the obligation to make demands of his own base.
A bit more revealing was the make-believe world in which the president resides. He declared, “A decade of war is now ending. And economic recovery has begun.” A decade of war is not ending; we have chosen to leave. An economic recovery is so anemic as to be unfelt by the millions of Americans still out of work. No call to grow and employ and revive the engine of private sector. Perish the thought.
To oppose him is to be against the common man. (“We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.”) To question him is to be against progress. (“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.”) The absence of any desire for political unity or cooperation was noteworthy.
As for foreign policy, there was no evidence we have any actual enemies. It sounds like we are setting up a welfare center:
We will defend our people, and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully. Not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad. For no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice. Not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
The threats from terrorism and from a nuclear-armed Iran do not figure in his vision. It was the most glaring demonstration of the president’s disregard for his role as commander in chief. “No wars; I’m done,” was about it.
And you knew the jaw-dropping hypocrisy would be there: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act. We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.” Well, it would help if he stopped accusing his opponents of bad will and of trying to get us to drink polluted water.
The speech was essentially a call to arms for the left. Memorable lines? I can’t think of any. Indeed, there was no shape to the speech, no defining purpose other than to reaffirm his collectivist bent. It frankly sounded like a recycled convention speech. Its redeeming feature was its brevity; but he had little to say other than his undying faith in the government to do things for us.
It was the most underwhelming and unsurprising inaugural address of my lifetime.
The Collective Turn
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: January 21, 2013
The best Inaugural Addresses make an argument for something. President Obama’s second one, which surely has to rank among the best of the past half-century, makes an argument for a pragmatic and patriotic progressivism.
His critics have sometimes accused him of being an outsider, but Obama wove his vision from deep strands in the nation’s past. He told an American story that began with the Declaration and then touched upon the railroad legislation, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the highway legislation, the Great Society, Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.
Turning to the present, Obama argued that America has to change its approach if it wants to continue its progress. Modern problems like globalization, technological change, widening inequality and wage stagnation compel us to take new collective measures if we’re to pursue the old goals of equality and opportunity.
Obama wasn’t explicit about why we have failed to meet these challenges. But his critique was implicit. There has been too much “me” — too much individualism and narcissism, too much retreating into the private sphere. There hasn’t been enough “us,” not enough communal action for the common good.
The president then described some of the places where collective action is necessary: to address global warming, to fortify the middle class, to defend Medicare and Social Security, to guarantee equal pay for women and equal rights for gays and lesbians.
During his first term, Obama was inhibited by his desire to be postpartisan, by the need to not offend the Republicans with whom he was negotiating. Now he is liberated. Now he has picked a team and put his liberalism on full display. He argued for it in a way that was unapologetic. Those who agree, those who disagree and those of us who partly agree now have to raise our game. We have to engage his core narrative and his core arguments for a collective turn.
I am not a liberal like Obama, so I was struck by what he left out in his tour through American history. I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, but I’d also mention Wall Street, State Street, Menlo Park and Silicon Valley. I’d emphasize that America has prospered because we have a decentralizing genius.
When Europeans nationalized their religions, we decentralized and produced a great flowering of entrepreneurial denominations. When Europe organized state universities, our diverse communities organized private universities. When Europeans invested in national welfare states, American localities invested in human capital.
America’s greatest innovations and commercial blessings were unforeseen by those at the national headquarters. They emerged, bottom up, from tinkerers and business outsiders who could never have attracted the attention of a president or some public-private investment commission.
I would have been more respectful of this decentralizing genius than Obama was, more nervous about dismissing it for the sake of collective action, more concerned that centralization will lead to stultification, as it has in every other historic instance.
I also think Obama misunderstands this moment. The Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society laws were enacted when America was still a young and growing nation. They were enacted in a nation that was vibrant, raw, underinstitutionalized and needed taming.
We are no longer that nation. We are now a mature nation with an aging population. Far from being underinstitutionalized, we are bogged down with a bloated political system, a tangled tax code, a byzantine legal code and a crushing debt.
The task of reinvigorating a mature nation is fundamentally different than the task of civilizing a young and boisterous one. It does require some collective action: investing in human capital. But, in other areas, it also involves stripping away — streamlining the special interest sinecures that have built up over the years and liberating private daring.
Reinvigorating a mature nation means using government to give people the tools to compete, but then opening up a wide field so they do so raucously and creatively. It means spending more here but deregulating more there. It means facing the fact that we do have to choose between the current benefits to seniors and investments in our future, and that to pretend we don’t face that choice, as Obama did, is effectively to sacrifice the future to the past.
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.
Obama’s second inaugural address: panel verdict
As President Obama embarks on a second term, did his speech still soar, his message inspire? Guardian columnists decide
Obama: No patsy now
By Kathleen Parker, Published: January 22
My inner Pollyanna was basking in blissfulness, rolling in the hay of righteous rhetoric, backstroking through the sunny sibilance of aspiration.
Drunk, apparently, on alliteration.
It was a perfect day. Cold but not freezing. Crowded but not crushing. A diverse people celebrating yet another historic day in the nation’s capital.
In one poignant moment, he paused while reentering the Capitol and turned for a last look at his kingdom and subjects: “I want to take a look one more time,” said President Obama. “I’m not going to see this again.”
Okay, fine, he’s not king and voters are not subjects. At least not yet. But it must have felt that way, especially having just delivered an inaugural address that informed the nation that things are about to change, royally.
Bipartisanship brunches notwithstanding, there was no hint in Obama’s words that he was interested in chatting up his political opposition over common ground. When he turned to bid farewell to a memory, he might as well have been bidding farewell to his former self — the conciliatory politician who once declared that there is no red America nor a blue America.
“Sayonara, suckers. You’ll never see that guy again.”
Obama may have entered the presidency hoping to bring an end to partisanship, but he entertains no such fantasies now. As he once told a handful of reporters on Air Force One, “I’m no patsy.”
Confident and experienced in his second term, Obama has become fully himself. Which is not to say that I disagree with everything or even most of what he said — at least thematically. Who isn’t for justice, equality, love, climate stability and peace in our time? Sign me up.
Confession: With speeches as with movies, I’m not much of an instant critic. I don’t watch a movie; I enter it. I want to lose myself, to feel what the actor feels, to experience the world as he does. I check my snark at the door.
Thus, Pollyanna saw the inauguration this way: Obama, the first black president entering a second term on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, seized the moment and left perfect storms whimpering in envy. Expansive in his vision of a United States, bound by common purpose and the belief that all men and women are created equal, he reiterated the Great American Truth: That every man and women has an inalienable right to pursue happiness and prosperity on a level playing field, equal in all ways under all laws.
Sing it! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.. . .His truth is marching on!
Then Obama said: “We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
Yes, yes, yes ! I’ll have what he’s having. I’ll go sleeveless in winter and cut my bangs! Of course we change when necessary. And of course we have to work to keep those truths. . .truthful.
Then along comes little Miss Monday Morning, who always begins her sentences with, “Yes, but.” What does this mean, substantively? Ah:
“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.”
Loose translation: Entitlement reform will not be topping the president’s second-term agenda. What it means beyond this is any palm reader’s guess.
We understand that we’re not a nation of takers (as Paul Ryan once regrettably put it), but how entitlement programs that far exceed our ability to pay for them “free us to take the risks that make this country great” is gobbledygook of the first order. It reeks of caffeine and the smug satisfaction familiar to all writers, who, upon crafting a sentence that is full of sound and fury signifying nothing, ignore the editor’s imperative: Delete, delete, delete. Or as I prefer to put it, kill your little darlings.
What it all really means, of course, is that Barack Obama has been liberated by a second term, free to take risks that he hopes will make his legacy great. This is his moment, his emancipation proclamation, his hinge point of history — and there’s no looking back now.
Four More Years