Commentary Magazine


Topic: inaugural address

Resurgent Liberalism Must Pay Its Bills

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.

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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.

While the president paid some lip service to fiscal realities yesterday, the overall tone was one that sought to rekindle confidence in the idea of a liberal narrative which depicts the country on an inexorable path to greater equality as well as more government services to do good. While we should all applaud the idea of equality, which is, as the president notes, integral to our identity as a nation, the attempt to channel the confidence of mid-19th century American liberalism in the early 21st century is bound to be a bust.

Americans came to accept in the 1980s and ’90s that the welfare state had failed to help the poor and was sinking the country in a moral and fiscal morass. But the problem for resurgent liberalism in 2013 is not just that most Americans already know that big government isn’t the answer to every problem, but that we are also aware that we haven’t the money to pay for the existing entitlements that Washington has promised, let alone any new ones.

President Obama can speak as if the cost of his new health care entitlement will not make it even harder to keep the debt from spiraling out of control and even promise more new costly projects. He can pretend that Medicare and Social Security must remain unchanged without bankrupting the country. He can also ignore the fact that the size not just of the federal government but also of local and state governments is fiscally unsustainable. But reality has a way of interfering with even the sweetest liberal fantasies.

Like it or not, liberalism must now face the problem of how to pay the bill for its big-government agenda. That was something that never occurred to Americans in the heyday of liberal political ascendance from the 1930s to the 1960s, as the thought of such limits was not imaginable. But there is no evading the fact that unless entitlements are reformed the whole system will collapse sometime in the coming decades. Liberals never used to worry about paying for their schemes, but now they must.

That is a problem that responsible politicians are struggling with these days, but it is not one that seems to interest the president very much. He prefers to live in a fantasy world in which Washington can go on taxing and spending with impunity and words like deficit and debt are treated as mere details.

Yesterday was an escape from reality for liberals. Let’s hope they and the president enjoyed it. In the real world in which we live the president’s vision of resurgent liberalism leads only to a North American version of Greece.

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The Significance of Obama’s Inaugural Address

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.

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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.

In that sense, Obama is the perfect president for our current political culture. And for all of his self-perceived similarities with Abraham Lincoln, he is the antithesis of Lincoln when it comes to grace, a charitable spirit and a commitment to genuine reconciliation. Mr. Obama is, at his core, a divider. He seems to relish it, even when the moment calls for a temporary truce in our political wars.

Which leads me to my second point.

Mr. Obama’s speech was not a call to unity; it was a summons to his liberal base to fight–on global warming, for gay rights, for gun control, for renewable energy, and for a diminished American role in world affairs. And the president’s speech also signaled that he will oppose, with passion and demagoguery, anyone who attempts to reform our entitlement programs. He is fully at peace with running trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. He not only won’t lift a finger to avoid America’s coming debt crisis; he will lacerate those who do.

A final point: Mr. Obama’s speech was a highly ambitious one intellectually. What he was attempting to do was to link progressivism to the American political tradition, to the vision of the founders and the Declaration of Independence. “The greatest progressive arguments throughout the country’s history have been rooted in the language of the Declaration of Independence,” Michael Waldman, who was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton, told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent. “This speech was really rooted in that tradition.”

The key to understanding the president’s inaugural address, then, was this line: “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words [from the Declaration] with the realities of our time.”

Mr. Obama views himself as America’s bridge, the modern-day interpreter of Washington, Madison, and Jefferson. Mr. Obama’s agenda is their agenda. Or so says Obama.

Mr. Obama is a Man of Zeal. He believes the currents of history are swift, powerful, and on his side.

What we are seeing is the authentic Obama, a liberated and fiercely committed progressive who believes he is an agent for social justice and fairness. He feels the election completely vindicated him and his agenda. He has sheer contempt for his opponents. And in his second term he will crush them if they stand in his way.

Call it the transmogrification of Hope and Change. 

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A President Who Has Learned Nothing

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.

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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.

The president had a lot to say about gay rights and global warming, but for those wondering if he had any new ideas about working with his opponents in an era of divided government, there was little sign that he cared do so. He ignored the problems of a weak economy, instead merely saying that it was recovering. Those looking for an indication that he intends to address the deficit—the greatest long-term threat to our continued prosperity and security—got no comfort. Indeed, the president seemed to say that entitlement reform was a nonstarter in a second Obama administration and that class warfare will be a constant. His hypocritical attack on those who engage in name-calling, which he views as the preserve of Republicans, was a graceless note coming from a man whose campaign devoted itself to smearing his opponent last fall.

Looking abroad, President Obama may believe that his second term will be one in which there will be no more war. Unfortunately, the Taliban and al-Qaeda may think differently. So, too, may the leaders of the Islamist regime in Iran whose efforts to get to get a nuclear weapon may have more to say about the success or failure Obama’s second term than anyone else. His mention of “engagement” was particularly ominous, since it was his foolish attempt to make nice with Iran (prominently mentioned in his first Inaugural Address) that wasted most of this first term and brought us even closer to nuclear peril.

But the main takeaway from this speech is that the president isn’t prepared to give an inch on his desire for more spending and taxing or to contemplate the reform of Medicare and Social Security that would allow those programs to endure. If his first term was marred by anger and arguments in which the president rarely treated the opposition as either legitimate or worthy of consideration, the second term may be even worse. The bottom line here is that a re-elected Obama is determined to take this country to the left with a big-government liberal agenda and will not consider any alternative. Elections do have consequences, but no one should think this will or should be accepted by Republicans.

A wise president would take the lessons of the past four years and adjust his policies and shift away from the ideological blinders that he came into office with. But Barack Obama is not such a president. The speech had all the signs of hubris that often lead presidents into the arrogant assumption that they can as they like in their second terms. That leads more often than not to disaster. He may think he can take us back to the era before Americans realized that liberalism was a god that failed. But those who see this backward-looking and extremist stand as a threat both to our liberty and our future should take it as a reason to redouble their efforts to oppose his plans.

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Previewing the Inaugural Address

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.

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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.

On January 20, 2009, Packer wrote that Obama’s address had “echoes of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.” Its “tone and vision” had been “absolutely equal to the occasion and the times.” The “most eloquent words” were addressed to the entire world: “we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.” The most “passionately delivered” lines began: “We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waiver in its defense.” In short, Obama “delivered something better than rhetorical excitement”–he had spoken “the truth,” which “carries its own poetry,” and he had made “impossible” the job of the poet following him that day.

Four years later, Packer remembers only a single phrase–the not-for-the-ages “new era of responsibility”–and cautions that the history of inaugural addresses suggests Obama’s one Monday may slightly bore us. What’s going on here?

It is not that Obama cannot come up with words that stick. Consider just a few: exceptional like Greece is exceptional; punished with a baby; typical white person; at a certain point you’ve made enough money; shovel-ready jobs that weren’t shovel-ready; pivoting to jobs; the stupidly-acting Cambridge police; we can’t eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees and just expect other countries to say OK; I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking; I have a gift, Harry; this time, you’ve got me; they should be thanking me; if you like your plan, you can keep it; Slurpee-sipping opponents; that business of yours, you didn’t build that; say that louder, Candy; I am a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. Few presidents have had so many sticky words.   

In the last paragraph of his current piece, Packer expresses his hope that Obama will surprise us with an address Monday that “treats us like his intellectual equals” (a challenge perhaps even greater than the one given the poet last time) with “vivid prose.” It is as if Packer believes the complex, nuanced, elusive, careful Obama is capable of a speech with echoes of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, but does not want readers setting the bar very high. Call it the soft sycophancy of lowering expectations.

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