President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address could have been the moment when he led the nation to face up to reality—that we can only afford our marvelous welfare state if we reform it and make hard choices to trim back where we can.
The president could have used the matchless bully pulpit of the Capitol’s west front to level with the people about what is required if America is not going to slip into a long period of drift or decline. He could have gone over the heads of the squabbling partisans of Congress, cable TV and the Internet to enlist voters in a cause that demands consensus and compromise. He could have shown the way toward a grand bargain that requires all sides to give a little to achieve a greater end.
But he didn’t.
Instead, Obama took the politically safe route. He gave a nice, warm, well delivered and thoroughly unmemorable inaugural address. It will join all the others delivered by politically cautious presidents and their blandly eloquent speech writers.
Maybe we should be grateful that he didn’t promise too much—to “bear any burden, pay any price” for the defense of liberty, as John F. Kennedy put it in his moving inaugural that turned out to be a blueprint for Vietnam. But second inaugurals and second terms offer presidents the opportunity to break away from convention. After all, they’ve already won. They aren’t running for office anymore and they can, presumably, afford to speak truth, even politically risky truth.
Maybe the vast patriotic crowds, standing in the cold on the Mall, want to hear only the good news: the upbeat, the reassuring, the affirming. But I think most Americans sitting at home are skeptical, wary of politicians who exclaim, as Obama did, “America’s possibilities are limitless!” and “We are made for this moment!” without every quite saying, in any specific way, what is required to preserve and protect the American dream. You don’t have to work for a think tank to know that as America ages, as the baby boomers grow old, there are fewer workers for every retiree, and that praying for economic growth to pay off our mushrooming debt is just that: a prayer, not a policy.
Obama did, in one brief sentence, say, “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” But then, in the next sentence, he insisted, “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.” That is a classic straw-man argument.
Obviously, every generation will have to sacrifice a little. Indeed, the only politically possible grand bargain requires everyone to give a little—the rich more than the poor, yes, but everyone needs some skin in the game or no solution is possible. We must raise taxes and cut entitlements. (It’s possible that Obama is waiting for the State of the Union to make hard-choice policy proposals. But don’t hold your breath.)
The warring factions on the Hill and in the media will not bring the people together. Only the president can do that. Obama had a nice riff at the end that his oath of office is really not so different from the oaths that soldiers or immigrants swear, or even from the allegiance the rest of us pledge to the flag. We all, every one of us, has a responsibility to our country. But it is the president who must lead.
Evan Thomas is the author of Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.