Reaction to the Inaugural Address

Filed in National by on January 22, 2013

I think Andrew Sullivan is right: Obama is the liberal Reagan. The speech yesterday will be a mission statement for Progressives for the next two to three generations, much like the Inaugurals of FDR were to older generations of progressives and how Reagan’s were to conservatives. I am going to quote liberally (pun intended) from Sully here, as I think he is spot on:

If you have long believed, as I have, that this man could easily become the liberal Reagan by the end of his second term (even Ross now agrees), then this speech will not have surprised you. The president went out of his way to acknowledge the tradition of free enterprise, risk, individualism and all that fuels and furnishes the broad swathe of what might even now still be called American conservatism. This is not new; in fact, whenever you hear Obama extoll those virtues, you know what’s coming next.

Which is to say: All of that is simply not enough “in new times.” In an era of globalization, of soaring social and economic inequality, of growing debt, of crumbling infrastructure, and of technological revolution: we have to act collectively as well. We cannot balance the budget entirely by ourselves as individuals; or rebuild the country’s human capital without government investment in education; or provide the firmest foundation for capitalism to thrive if the system is rigged – and seen by most to be rigged – for the powerful and their interests alone. We have to make the tax code simpler to save our democracy from the lobbying locusts feeding relentlessly off it. We have to invest in physical and human capital more effectively if we are to meet the challenges of our age.

What he was saying, in other words, is that he is not interested in answering for all time the fundamental question of the role of government – because that question is simply not answerable for all time. We will never answer it definitively. Because it is one of humankind’s greatest and deepest questions. At the same time, we live in a specific time with specific issues and new questions – and the difference between an ideologue and a statesman is that a statesman’s job is not to bang on for ever about “freedom” or “equality” in the abstract (we can leave that to Fox and MSNBC), but to make the right prudential judgments in the moment, with limited knowledge, as best he can, in the interests of all of us.

It was, in some ways, then a final rejoinder to Ronald Reagan’s critical qualifier to his declaration of government as the problem in January 1981: “In this present crisis …” This Inaugural Speech was not so much a repudiation of that (as we know, there are aspects to the Gipper’s transformation of American politics Obama has long publicly honored). It was to say that Reagan’s solutions may have been right then but they are not right now. […]

I have often remarked when challenged on my continued support and admiration for this president the following: “He’s a moderate Republican. Why wouldn’t I like him?” But this is, of course, too glib. I think his obvious conviction that the powerless and poor need more government support, not less, moves him clearly into the liberal, progressive camp. But beneath all of it is a Toryism of sentiment, a Burkean and Niebuhrian understanding of liberal progress, a president with a grasp that tragedy and paradox stalk the human experience:

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 four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

Anthony Quinton once called conservatism the “politics of imperfection.” I believe Obama to be, at his core, a fusion of that great conservative insight into human affairs with that great liberal passion for a better future for more and more human beings: something perfectible, but never perfect.

Kevin Drum thought “this was a more explicitly political inauguration speech than usual”:

Sure enough, the Fox News commenters seem distinctly unhappy with this speech. Brit Hume is complaining that the economy is still terrible. Chris Wallace says Obama didn’t reach out to conservatives at all. Bret Baer thinks it was basically a challenge to Republicans not to try and mess with the welfare state. Megyn Kelly says that even the Washington Post thinks Obama is too liberal. And so far, we’ve only heard from the relatively moderate wing of Fox pundits.

Ezra Klein:

This was not a speech that assumed that the disagreements that split our politics are based on the psychodramas of the past nor that they will fall easily before the onslaught of the future. But it was a speech, more so than most Obama has offered, that signaled his intention to join the battle of ideas, to use his bully pulpit to make an aggressive and uncompromising case for why his side is right, and to not rest until the American people agree that the other side is wrong.

Jonathan Chait:

The Obama who begins his second term is much more acutely aware that the opposing party rejects, at the most philosophical level, the definition of the good that he has put forward as the national creed. Four years ago he expressed a jaunty confidence that the differences must be bridged. Today he committed himself to the same goal, but with a wariness borne of harsh experience.

Matthew Continetti:

“It is of course possible that the inauguration of a reelected president is his moment of maximum triumph. It is of course possible that Obama’s second term may turn out like George W. Bush’s, when the lyricism and passion of the second inaugural collided with the realities of strategic miscalculations and unexpected events. I have my doubts. What I do not doubt is that the generation of conservatives and Republicans who return one day to power will be forced to reckon with the consequences of the Obama revolution, just as a generation of defeated liberals were forced to confront and in some cases accept the revolution of Ronald Reagan.”

Ross Douthat, pretending to be an Obama translator during his Second Inaugural:

“I got tax increases without entitlement cuts, I flipped the script on the culture war, and now Marco Rubio is going to help me pass an immigration bill. I’m still up for a grand bargain, but I don’t need one: The economy’s limping back, the deficit should stabilize in the short run, and the long term — well, that’s my successor’s problem. I’d like to win on gun control and climate change, but I’ll settle for making the case and seeing whether a Biden administration (you only think I’m kidding) can finish the job. Sure, second terms can be dicey propositions. But as long as I don’t get impeached or start a land war in Asia, I’m feeling pretty good about my legacy. And oh, you centrist chin-strokers who kept saying I was no Clinton? You were absolutely right. I’m the liberal Reagan. Deal with it.”

Alex Massie:

[Y]ou could see why comparisons with Ronald Reagan are not so far-fetched. It is not so much that Obama can deliver a decent speech (though he’s not as good a communicator as Reagan was) rather the manner in which he couches his argument. Obama, more than most politicians but rather like Reagan, talks in such a fashion that you suspect he finds it hard to believe that anyone could truly and honestly and decently disagree with him and certainly no intelligent or generous person could. The goodness of his ideas and his intentions is presumed; opposition to them must be predicated upon something sinister. Reagan could speak like this too and, like Obama, he made it seem as though there might be something disagreeable about disagreeing with the President.

James Fallows:

I was expecting an anodyne tone-poem about healing national wounds, surmounting partisanship, and so on. As has often been the case, Obama confounded expectations — mine, at least. Four years ago, when people were expecting a barn-burner, the newly inaugurated president Obama gave a deliberately downbeat, sober-toned presentation about the long challenges ahead. Now — well, it’s almost as if he has won re-election and knows he will never have to run again and hears the clock ticking on his last chance to say what he cares about. If anyone were wondering whether Obama wanted to lower expectations for his second term … no, he apparently does not.

Roger Simon:

It was a very careful speech. It had been worked on for months, with each word weighed. So it was no accident that Obama used the word “gay” but did not use the word “gun.” The latter has become more controversial than the former these days.

To Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, the speech had a historical framework. At the beginning, he invoked the most sacred words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But this was more than just patriotic filler. It was a call to replace inaction with action. “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing,” Obama said. “While freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

Richard Socarides/ of the New Yorker:

No one anticipated it, but President Barack Obama used the occasion of his second Inaugural Address to give what was perhaps the most important gay-rights speech in American history. Inaugural Addresses are, by their definition, important and defining occasions, when Presidents set the tone and direction for the coming four years. President Obama used the occasion to make the first direct reference to gay-rights in an Inaugural Address, and he did so with a power and forthrightness we have not heard before, even from him.

David Brooks:

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…

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…

Obama made his case beautifully. He came across as a prudent, nonpopulist progressive.

EJ Dionne:

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.

About the Author ()

Comments (3)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Jason330 says:

    Thanks for posting these.

  2. bamboozer says:

    What to say? Epic game changer? I think not. A line in the sand? Nope. Historic sea changing, tide turning end on an era? Not at all. The beginning of real change? Perhaps, and a call for the rest of us to throw off Reagan, Bush and the panoply of far right politicians that were never, ever on our side? Man, I sure hope so.

  3. puck says:

    Obama is the liberal Reagan.

    Well, let’s see. He deferred the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for two years. And then when two years was up, he cut taxes for the 1% (dividends) from 39.6% to 20%. And he cut the top marginal rate for the 1% (up to $450K) from 39.6% to 36%. And now it’s permanent, and he no longer wields the expiration hammer.

    With all these tax cuts for the rich, where exactly are you getting this “liberal” from?