Barack Obama’s second inaugural address was a tightly focused pitch for patriotic progressivism, a crisp articulation of the American values that animate and inspire his rainbow coalition.
Second-term presidents typically have a short window in which to work their will – typically, it’s 18 months before lame duck syndrome kicks in – and this president isn’t likely to extend that cruel calendar.
But right now at least, in the wake of a decisive four-point victory, delivered by that aformentioned rainbow coalition, Obama rightly believes he has the wind at his back. The Republicans, fresh from their fifth popular-vote defeat in the last six presidential elections, are rudderless; indeed, they caved to Obama last week on their threat to crash the nation’s full faith and credit. So today was a propitious time for the president to lay down some markers and situate his progressivism in the American tradition.
And so he did. Back in 2009, in his windy and overlong inaugural remarks, he spent a lot of time rhetorically reaching out to the vanquished GOP. This time, he barely bothered. He has been tempered by experience, and, after having whipped the GOP in another national election, he’s more confident that he has the upper hand. Granted, some of the big stuff on his agenda will require House Republican passage, but clearly he doesn’t intend to approach those people on bended knee. Rather, he plans to stay on offense, keep the pressure on. Hence this speech line today: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substutute spectacle for politics.” After all, he’s the guy with the 55 percent approval rating; congressional Republicans are down around 19 percent.
By Obama standards, and certainly by the standards of most inaugural speeches, he was unusually outspoken today. His basic message: Now that “the economy recovery has begun” and that “a decade of war is now ending,” and now that he’s freed from the pressures of re-election, he intends to pursue his vision of patriotic progressivism. That’s my term, not his. But that’s what he laid out today. He invoked the Founders’ key words – all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights – and contended that we need “to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time…when times change, so must we…fidelity to our founding principles require new responses to new challenges.”
For instance, in the name of equality and the pursuit of happiness, Obama signaled that he’ll continue to resist Republican attempts to shred the safety net: “We the people still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity….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….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.”
(Note the combative swipe at conservative leader Paul Ryan, who voiced his “nation of takers” complaint during his doomed campaign.)
Then came this surprisingly strong passage: “We the people still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it….That is how we will maintain our economic vitality….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.”
(Note the combative swipe at purblind conservatives who refuse to accept reality: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science…” Alas, a disproportionate number of deniers, bankrolled by the fossil fuel industry, reside in the House Republican caucus.)
And there were more surprises. Obama was expected to pluck some of the same populist chords that worked during the campaign – hence his reference to income inequality: “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it” – but no previous president had ever defined the fight for gay rights as a patriotic duty equal to the fight for minority and women’s rights, as a fullfillment of the Founders’ credo:
“We the people declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
(Note how Obama equated Selma and Stonewall, key events in the fight for civil rights and gay rights. A sizeable number of black preachers and black voters are uneasy about gay marriage and resist putting the two movements on the same continuum. And a sizeable number weren’t happy when Obama endorsed gay marriage during the campaign. But black voters stuck with him anyway. Hence his confidence during the inaugural speech.)
So if we itemize the aforementioned issues – along with several others, such as Republican voter suppression (“our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote”), gun reform (“all our children…safe from harm”), and immigration reform (“our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity”) – we see a second-term blueprint that echoes the populist and social concerns of the rainbow coalition that returned him to office. The same coalition that made him only third Democrat in history, aside from Andrew Jackson and Franklin D Roosevelt, to be twice elected with at least 51 percent of the vote.
Right now, this is America’s majority coalition – upscale educated whites, professional women, downscale but aspiring minorities, gay people, socially tolerant suburbanites, liberal urbanites. They are the market for Obama’s patriotic progressivism, or perhaps he’s merely echoing their sensibility. Either way, Obama has the political strength to score some policy wins during his 18-month window. He has learned from experience that these wins will be modest and that nirvana is an illusion – as he remarked today, “our work will be imperfect…today’s gains will only be partial” – and that the journey that began in 1776 will never be complete. But even his critics would surely concede that his journey is made easier by having the wind at his back.
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