A young reporter who has covered only President Obama’s first term has already witnessed several political epochs.
Obama’s election was a symbol of reconciliation in America’s longest, bloodiest conflict — the one that produced Antietam. It was followed by a partisan lunge to fulfill the dreams of the Great Society by delivering universal health care. Which was followed by an ideological backlash that shifted control of the House, led by activists who talked as if the whole welfare state might be undone. Which was followed by Obama’s victorious reelection campaign, which turned the mobilization of partisans and ethnic groups into an exact science and reengaged the culture war on abortion.
The compression of these ideological mood swings into four years has left an impression of political instability, perhaps bipolarity. Both parties overreach. Their tone is often frantic and overheated. They focus mainly on energizing the faithful rather than persuading the undecided.
Such polarization has deep roots. Parties, communities and regions have sorted themselves by ideology, producing citizens who operate in separate partisan worlds. Partisan media outlets succeed through the reinforcement and exaggeration of grievances. Most House members represent safe districts in which their greatest political fear is offending those who vote in primaries.
What can a presidential inaugural address do to oppose these centrifugal forces? Probably not much. Maybe admit some mutual fault and call for a new beginning. Maybe direct attention to unifying national values beyond current controversies. Maybe just assert the moral duties of kindness and civility we owe each other in a democracy.
This year, however, the influence of such a speech remains untested because it was not attempted. President Obama set an unobjectionable goal: “a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.” He asserted that this objective can only be achieved “together, as one nation, and one people.” But he proceeded to define an agenda, in some detail, that could have been taken from any campaign speech of the 2012 election. It involves the building of roads and research labs, promoting clean-energy technology, protecting entitlements from significant change, passing equal-pay legislation and immigration reform.
Those who oppose this agenda, in Obama’s view, are not a very admirable lot. They evidently don’t want our wives, mothers and daughters to “earn a living equal to their efforts.” They would cause some citizens “to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” They mistake “absolutism for principle” and “substitute spectacle for politics” and “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” They would have people’s “twilight years . . . spent in poverty” and ensure that the parents of disabled children have “nowhere to turn.” They would reserve freedom “for the lucky” and believe that Medicare and Social Security “sap our initiative,” and they see this as “a nation of takers.” They “deny the overwhelming judgment of science” on climate change, don’t want love to be “equal” and apparently contemplate “perpetual war.”
For Abraham Lincoln, even the gravest national crimes involved shared fault. For Obama, even the most commonplace policy disagreements indicate the bad faith of his opponents. In his first inaugural address, George Washington described the “sacred fire of liberty.” In his second, Obama constructed a raging bonfire of straw men.
This will, no doubt, please the president’s strongest supporters, who are grateful that he has given up the pious balderdash of bipartisanship. They welcome his sharper political edge. They describe him as “wiser,” “wary” and more realistic about the unchangeable obstructionism of his opponents.
It is not the first time a president has been indicted by the praise of his courtiers. Obama arrived with limited experience on the national stage — only to find himself in the fight from the last act of Hamlet. He seemed surprised that Washington could not be changed by the force of his personality. He has become a sobered and hardened figure. A former public official who often interacted with Obama put it this way to me: “Obama disdains politicians and the art of politics, but he is highly competitive and wants to beat them at their own game.”
This is not a problem if the president is merely one participant among many in a series of zero-sum political battles. But this approach has serious drawbacks if a president is called to play a leadership role in reforms that require both parties to trust each other and take simultaneous risks. On the evidence of his second inaugural, Obama has moved beyond such idealism.