January 24, 2013

Little by little, it’s sinking in that Obama’s inaugural speech has the potential to be a turning point in American history, one akin to Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981, in which he declared: “Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.” That speech did more than articulate the conservative philosophy of governance; it was a declaration of ideological victory, a proclamation that the nation had opted for a new ideological direction.

Obama’s speech was every bit as ambitious, recasting progressivism in the eyes of the nation, declaring that the country has opted for a fundamentally new philosophical and ideological course. In a must read, E.J. Dionne explains:

Like Reagan, Obama hopes to usher in a long-term electoral realignment — in Obama’s case toward the moderate left, thereby reversing the 40th president’s political legacy. The Reagan metaphor helps explain the tone of Obama’s inaugural address, built not on a contrived call to an impossible bipartisanship but on a philosophical argument for a progressive vision of the country rooted in our history.

The key to Obama’s argument, as Ed Kilgore points out, is that he made the “long lost liberal case that collective action is necessary to the achievement of individual freedom, instead of implicitly conceding that social goals and individual interests are inherently at war.” Indeed, Obama himself put it this way: “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

Crucially, Obama presented this idea as the philosophical underpinning that unified all of his specific policy proposals, from the vow to combat climate change, to the push for equal pay for women, to the fight for full equality for gay Americans, to the need for voting and immigration reform. He cast inequality and the unfairness of the unfettered free market as threats to freedom, i.e., the freedom to pursue happiness. And this goes beyond the Inaugural: Remember, in his speech laying out his proposal for action on guns, he cast gun violence as a threat to the freedom to pursue happiness within a civil society.

This overarching philosophical argument was at the center of the 2012 election. The battles over Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech, and over the GOP suggestion that the President’s “redistributionist” and “collectivist” tendencies are fundamentally at odds with the nation’s values, were at bottom an argument over the true nature of our shared responsibility to one another. Republicans angrily argue that Obama unfairly caricatured the GOP position as a “you’re on your own” ethic. But Obama was broadly articulating a legitimate philosophical difference between the parties, and the election results suggest Obama’s vision is shared by the American mainstream and the emerging majority coalition of Obama voters, i.e., nonwhites, college educated women (and to a lesser degree college educated men) and younger voters. Obama’s catchphrase — “we’re all in this together” — was widely mocked on the right, but this emerging coalition appears to understand this argument on Obama’s terms, as a governing ethic for moving the country forward.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt that Obama will get key elements of his second term program through. But a president’s legacy can outlast his legislative accomplishments, and if he succeeds at rehabilitating the big idea binding together his proposals — that collective action via the federal government isn’t fundamentally at odds with American values and identity, but rather is an integral part of the country’s tradition — it could go a long way towards reversing one of the great triumphs of conservative messaging over the last few decades. Crucially, there are no signs the GOP is in the process of developing an effective counterargument to replace the one that was defeated in the 2012 election.

* Assault weapons ban to be introduced today: Senator Dianne Feinstein is set to introduce an assault weapons ban today that will single out more than 100 specific weapons. This nugget from the Post overview is key:

Aides say there probably will be three main packages of gun-control legislation over the coming months, with one anchored by the assault-weapons ban, which is considered the most difficult. Another set of proposals will include an effort to establish universal background checks for all firearm sales in retail stores, gun shows or private exchanges. The other piece would include limiting the size of gun magazine clips.

So it looks like we’ll see separate proposals, after all. And so we’ll see Republicans — and red state Dems — challenged to vote against just improving the background check system, which is a no brainer and has overwhelming public support/.

* Red state Dems warming to gun background checks? Today’s Times has a big lead story detailing the reluctance of red state Dem senators to support Obama’s gun package. Because Feinstein is introducing her assault ban today, the focus of the story is off; it’s almost entirely about the ban — which those Dems are reluctant to support — when in fact, the most important element in Obama’s proposal is the universal background check system:

On Thursday a group of Democratic senators led by Dianne Feinstein of California plans to introduce a bill that would outlaw more than 100 different assault weapons, setting up what promises to be a fraught and divisive debate over gun control in Congress in the coming weeks. But a number of centrist lawmakers like Mr. Manchin have already thrown the measure’s fate into question, saying that all they are willing to support for now is a stronger background check system.

If it’s true that a number of these red state Dems support a stronger background check system, that’s actually important news, and not at all trivial, as the story makes it sound. Their offices have not been willing to confirm this. Background checks are the number one priority of gun control advocates, and the proposal Obama led with in his gun speech, so this is a real development (again, if true).

* Joe Manchin comes out for background checks: Along those lines, in the above link, this is important. Manchin says he isn’t ready to support an assault weapons ban, but adds:

“I’m definitely more inclined to be very supportive of background checks.”

That is a real step forward, given Manchin’s “gun rights” reputation and “A” rating from the NRA. More on this later.

* Public supports Obama’s gun proposals: A new Post/ABC News poll finds that 53 percent support Obama’s proposals, versus only 41 percent who oppose them. Independents support them by 51-44, and moderates by 59-33. And keep in mind when the individual elements are polled — such as universal background checks and the assault ban — public support is far higher.

* More on the background check system: Glenn Kessler has a good look at the legacy of the Brady Law, which created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. As Kessler details, tens of thousands of people with felony convictions or indictments have been denied a gun. Though there are legitimate questions about how perfect this system is, the basic question for members of Congress is this: Should anyone in America be able to buy a gun without getting screened for a criminal background?

* And Jennifer Granholm for labor secretary? Jill Lawrence floats the idea, noting that it would be a good way for Obama to underscore his commitment to reducing inequality. The idea is that Granholm — telegenic, energetic, and two term governor of Michigan, the birthplace of the UAW — could reinvigorate a labor movement that really needs some new energy, given that its ranks have plummeted to levels not seen since the 1930s.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.