Monday’s refreshingly short effort at the Capitol nonetheless had multiple throw-down-the-gauntlet moments. Obama has four more years; he has an agenda; he’s going to give what he perceives as a living, breathing Constitution a workout; and he’s not going to be patient.
“Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune ... But we have always understood that when times changes, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new response to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action ... 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.”
If there were money lines in President Obama’s second inaugural address, those above qualify. Monday’s refreshingly short effort at the Capitol nonetheless had multiple throw-down-the-gauntlet moments. Obama has four more years; he has an agenda; he’s going to give what he perceives as a living, breathing Constitution a workout; and he’s not going to be patient. In some ways it was reminiscent of George W. Bush’s 2004 pronouncement that “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and I intend to spend it,” with the more strident, political tone of a State of the Union address or a stump speech — indeed, he even took a swipe at Mitt Romney — than the traditional, heal-the-wounds flavor of an inaugural.
He certainly delineated his priorities. Don’t expect much in the way of immediate entitlement or spending reforms. “We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. 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.” When it comes to policy shifts, he’ll aggressively go to bat for those who are struggling: “We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”
He’ll try to steer clear of foreign conflicts, because “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” Second Amendment purists may not much cotton to the idea of trying “to bridge the meaning” of the Founders’ words “with the realities of our time.” His energy policy will reflect the need “to respond to the threat of climate change,” as evidenced not only by “the overwhelming judgment of science” but the “devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.” He will advocate for women to “earn a living equal to their efforts,” for gays to be “treated like anyone else under the law,” for immigrants to “see America as a land of opportunity” again. One trusts no Democratic constituencies were missed.
In short, expect this second-term president to try to change or eliminate “outworn programs ... inadequate to the needs of our time,” and to “remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.” Ambitious.
Reaction to the speech has been largely predictable, dependent largely on the lens through which one views the world in the first place. Some will view it as a reaffirmation of the social contract between Uncle Sam and his citizens, others as confirmation that this administration now intends to finish the job of turning America into a socialist, redistributionist state. Where some will find what Obama had to say threatening, others who heard the same words will walk away reassured. Conservatives were quick to seize on his “collective action” comment, tending to view it as proof of what they suspected all along, with this merely the formal, coming-out speech of an unapologetic liberal, a president who believes in the ability of government to fix problems and right wrongs as no officeholder has since FDR.
There was more than a hint of defiance here, from a president who seems to no longer believe in bipartisanship, perhaps with ample reason. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” No more Mr. Nice Guy? Maybe.
There are risks. A president who plans on moving full steam ahead, with or without Republicans, just doesn’t have that luxury. Republicans still own the House. As a practical matter, even if you’re on the right side of an issue, insulting someone and then asking him to do you a favor tends not to produce the most positive result. The president acts as if he’s been liberated, but in our brand of politics no one is truly free and unfettered, as Bush learned. He should be careful not to turn into that which he so derisively accuses others of being. No leader can give his constituents everything they want; sometimes he must deliver bitter medicine, too, for their own long-term good.
But jarring potholes exist ahead for Republicans, as well, especially those who insist on refusing to recognize that the nation has changed — demographically, culturally — and is continuing to without needing their permission to do so. They reelected this president, support many of his initiatives.
Tone and substance sometimes clashed in this speech, but this much seems “self-evident,” to borrow a phrase: “We are made for this moment” — or we once were — “and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together.” In this republic, that’s just the way it is, no matter who’s president.
Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.