January 23, 2013

Kenneth S. Baer is a managing director of the Harbour Group and the author of “Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton.” He is a former associate director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.

If you missed Barack Obama’s inaugural address on Monday, you might have thought that it was George McGovern who took the oath of office.

“Unabashedly progressive,” said ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl; “President Obama goes on the offense for liberalism,” Politico proclaimed. A day later, Republicans jumped on board. “His unabashedly far-left-of-center inaugural speech certainly brings back memories of the Democratic Party in ages past,” thundered Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum said the speech “rejected and repudiated the ideas that have dominated American political discourse since the Carter presidency. It rejected not only Reagan, but Clinton.” Former Nixon and Reagan aide David Gergen concluded: “Gone were the third way of Bill Clinton and the centrism of Jimmy Carter. He emerged as an unapologetic, unabashed liberal — just what the left has long wanted him to be and exactly what the right has feared.”

Yet Obama’s address was firmly in the mainstream — of both the country and the Democratic Party, which has absorbed the lessons of its post-1968 defeats and synthesized into its core the New Democratic values of the Clinton era. The speech sounded so robustly liberal not because the president or his party has changed but because the Republican Party has, moving far outside the norms of American political thought.

Defending the idea of a social safety net to guard against the vagaries of life is hardly radical. President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law extensions of Social Security; President Ronald Reagan worked with House Speaker Tip O’Neill to save Social Security in 1983; President George W. Bush created the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

But in a world in which Republicans have endorsed a budget that would eviscerate Medicaid and turn it into a block grant and that would change Medicare into a voucher program whose value would quickly be overtaken by inflation, protecting the integrity of these programs suddenly sounds bold. Note that Obama did not say these programs were immune from reform. And while an inaugural address is hardly the place to rattle off numbers, Obama could have added that last year he put forward $350 billion in health entitlement savings on top of the $716 billion in Medicare savings he signed into law in his first term, cuts that Republicans tried to use as a cudgel against Democrats last year.

Did Obama call for a new entitlement to deal with our economic woes? No.

In fact, keeping with the New Democratic approach, Obama rejected the old-time religion of equality of outcome and framed his vision as one of equality of opportunity: “We must . . . empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.” Obama put forward neither a new government agency nor a guarantee of success. “Hard work and personal responsibility,” Obama reminded us, “are constants in our character.” Rather than relaunch the War on Poverty, Obama’s economic focus was the middle class and those striving to get there.

These differences may sound subtle, but they were an important shift in the Democratic Party’s public philosophy. In the 1990s, this change was controversial (recall the fight over welfare reform), but now it is easy to miss because opportunity and responsibility are so deeply embedded in the party’s DNA.

Defending a safety net and calling for opportunity for all is nothing new, though Obama’s call for full equality for gay and lesbian Americans is. Yet this, along with the calls for equal pay for women, welcoming immigrants and action on climate change, is radical only if viewed through the oversize tortoise-shell glasses of the 1980s.

The country has changed. In a turnabout from the past, these social issues cut against the GOP — not the Democratic Party. In the 1980s, a New Democrat would counsel against even mentioning these issues. Today, one of the most effective advocates for gay marriage is the preeminent New Democratic institution Third Way.

Perspective is everything in assessing Obama’s second inaugural address. One cannot ignore how the Republican Party’s move to the right has shifted the parameters of political debate. On economic policy, the president is in line with the bipartisan, postwar consensus on the safety net and with the New Democratic view on government’s role in the economy. On social issues, he is firmly in the mainstream and hardly a McGovernik.

But don’t believe me. Listen to Newt Gingrich: “I didn’t think it was very liberal,” he told Politico. “There were one or two sentences obviously conservatives would object to, but 95 percent of the speech I thought was classically American, emphasizing hard work, emphasizing self-reliance, emphasizing doing things together. I thought it was a good speech.”

So did I.