January 21, 2013

What struck me about Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address today — a good speech, although far too long to be a great one — was just how little he gave to conservatives.

President Barack Obama delivers his Inaugural Address. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
President Barack Obama delivers his Inaugural Address. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Indeed, quite the opposite. By discussing the “real meaning of our creed” with an explicit — jarring, even — mention of the idea of a “nation of takers,” Obama highlighted the differences between where he stands and where movement conservatives are. He tossed perhaps one small bone to the old post-partisan idea (that his was “an oath to God and country, not party or faction”), but very little else. Instead, there was talk about “Being true to our founding documents” in a way that made it clear that for him, those documents are far more than just compatible with contemporary liberal goals. For Obama, today, those founding documents strongly pointed the nation in a liberal direction.

Now, I wouldn’t put all that much emphasis on what the president said today. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that presidential speeches don’t matter at all, but I would say that soon enough … oh, by next week, if not by later this afternoon … the realities of vote counts in Congress, bureaucratic inertia and the necessity of choosing priorities will matter far more than the expansive liberal rallying cry that Obama gave this afternoon.

But for whatever it’s worth, what Obama gave today was an effort at drawing a liberal picture of mainstream politics in the United States. And it wasn’t a picture with, really, any place for tea partiers. That’s certainly his right to do; after all, he won! It may, indeed, be smart politics, given that it’s unlikely that even the most conciliatory speech would appeal to those who are ready to impeach him for blowing his nose the wrong way or whatever. Still, I thought it was striking. For a politician whose natural instincts certainly seem to be bridging the gaps between Americans, today’s speech was, to my ears at least, very different. It wasn’t bridging the gaps; it was defining a broad middle which leaves out the extremes, or at least the extreme on one side.