The consensus on the left today is that they have finally gotten the man they thought they were voting for in 2008. Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural speech was free of the post-partisan eyewash that was a staple of his first presidential campaign. The speech presented him as he is, a liberal ideologue that has little respect for opposing views and no interest in compromising on issues he cares about, like the budget. This was no surprise to conservatives who have never been deluded by the conceit that Obama was above ideology. But it does encourage liberals to believe that, as some are saying, this administration was on the verge of reversing the achievements of the Ronald Reagan era. Listen closely to MSNBC and CNN and you can almost hear the strains of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” as left-wing talkers envision the return of an era in which a permanent Democratic majority would ensure that America was on a permanent long march to a liberal utopia that the right was helpless to halt.
Such triumphalism is almost forgivable on Inauguration Day. But even if we take the president at his word, there is a big difference between our current situation and the world prior to 1981, when the left never doubted that their project would be derailed. Liberalism may be feeling its oats today, but looming over the inaugural parties is the fact that it cannot pay the bill for the party.
President Obama’s inaugural address was eloquent and moving in parts. It was also deeply partisan and polarizing, something that is unusual for a day normally devoted to unity and common purpose.
But not in Barack Obama’s America. In his inaugural speech he did what he seemingly cannot keep himself from doing: portraying himself and his followers as Children of Light and portraying his opponents as Children of Darkness.
You are either with Obama–or you are with the forces of cruelty and bigotry. In Obama’s world, there is no middle ground. He is the Voice of Reason; those who oppose him are the voice of the mob. They are the ones who (to cite just one passage from his speech) mistake absolutism for principle, substitute spectacle for politics, and treat name-calling as reasoned debate.
President Obama’s Inaugural Address was well delivered and, as we have come to expect from him, quite eloquent. It had the usual obeisance to the traditions of American democracy and the virtue of relative brevity. Yet there was nothing in it that showed that he had learned a thing in the four years since he first took the oath of office.
The address was a clarion call for the country to get behind the liberal agenda he supports. Fair enough. But, like much of what has come from the White House since November, it illustrated that this president was not interested in compromise or listening to any views but his own. If this speech is to be treated as sign of what will come, the next four years will be filled with more bitter partisan argument and ideological intransigence from the president. Even as many Americans were reveling in the feelings of unity that this ceremony engenders in all patriots, President Obama was throwing down a gauntlet to his foes and saying that he will redouble his efforts to demonize Republicans.
George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, warns that President Obama’s upcoming inaugural address may be “a bit of a snooze.” He says most inaugural addresses are. Obama “isn’t a phrasemaker,” because he is “too complex, too nuanced, too elusive, and too careful, for words that stick.” Packer doubts that even the “signature phrase” from Obama’s first inaugural address–“a new era of responsibility”–will “enter the ages.” About that, he is undoubtedly right.
Packer notes, however, that Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Reagan, and Bush 43 all gave inaugural addresses that included memorable phrases. Since it seems unlikely that all those presidents were significantly less complex, nuanced, elusive, and careful than Obama, we need an alternate theory to explain the point of Packer’s piece. Let’s review what he wrote about Obama’s first inaugural address, which is somewhat different from what one might expect, given Packer’s current comments.