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July 27, 2014

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Obama 2.0 sets stage for big debates

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President Barack Obama’s critics are shocked — shocked to hear him sound in his second inaugural address like what he is: a liberal progressive. One wonders what they expected.

What happened to jobs, they ask? What about the deficit? The budget? The debt ceiling? The dangerous world overseas? Why didn’t he reach out, some ask, with more soaring rhetoric and bipartisanship as Abraham Lincoln did in the gold standard of second inaugural speeches, to bind wounds with the warring Confederacy?

In other words: How dare he wage a vigorous defense of what he really believes?

The problem with that critique is that it requires more than a little amnesia about the debate this country has been having over the past couple of years about the role of government.

I’m all in favor of bipartisan outreach. But there’s an important difference between, say, Obama’s current situation and that of Lincoln’s time.

When Lincoln reached out “(w)ith malice toward none, with charity for all” to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and “do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace,” the Civil War was in its last days. Today’s polarized political debate is only entering a new phase.

Compared with the feverish tone of last year’s presidential campaign, Obama’s speech on the brink of his second term was only clarifying the differences between his goals and those who would like to stop him.

After all, when he called out those who “deny the overwhelming judgment of science” on climate change or refuse to allow love to be “equal” or seem to promote “perpetual war” or oppose the right of women to “earn a living equal to their efforts,” he wasn’t talking about all Republicans.

And when he spoke of those who believe that Medicare and Social Security “sap our initiative” and would leave some people to spend their “twilight years ... in poverty” and reserving freedom “for the lucky,” he wasn’t talking about all conservatives.

But if the shoe fits, wear it.

In his final inaugural address, the president sounded like a man who knows his clock is running out. To press the issues for which he wants to be remembered, the four-year calendar is misleading. He appears to know that he has only a few months at best before his congressional opposition turns their attention to their own 2014 re-election prospects — and make it much harder for him to get anything done.

He seemed to be signaling that he has learned from experience. Today’s political landscape is polarized. There really are red states and blue states in the USA. People sort themselves out into neighborhoods, partly according to how they vote. Computerized remapping leads increasingly to safe seats for congressmen in both parties, as long as they toe extremely partisan lines — and pander sometimes to those who “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”

This speech unveiled Obama 2.0, the sequel to the Washington newcomer who was caught off guard by a backlash from the Republicans’ Tea Party right wing not seen in Washington since the days of “white backlash,” as the media dubbed the grass-roots conservative reaction to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s civil rights revolution in the 1960s.

Much has changed since those days. But Obama, who has avoided talking much about race for fear of being accused of racial favoritism, did more than pay the usual obligatory tributes to King’s birthday holiday and the upcoming 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Obama 2.0 updated the agenda to include today’s big items, particularly marriage equality, climate change, women’s rights and comprehensive immigration reform.

And he presented them in the fashion of Theodore Roosevelt’s populist “square deal,” not only as a way for hard-working individuals to get ahead in life regardless of their conditions of birth but as investments in the nation’s future.

His opposition disagrees. That’s OK. That’s their job. But these are the issues on which Obama, repeatedly invoking “We the People,” is betting his legacy. Let the people decide.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He writes from Washington.

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  1. Mr. Page is living in the past. It's not 1900 and the era of Teddy Roosevelt and/or the 1950's and the eras of Dr. King and John Kennedy. It's the 21st Century. Things have changed. Believe it or not. We need leaders who take responsibility not just say they do. And we need honest media historians and Hollywood movie moguls who don't glorify leaders' weaknesses by ignoring and distorting the truth and facts.

    CarmineD