Presidential inaugurations are the political equivalent of New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Under the watchful eye of law enforcement, you wait in the cold for hours on end at a considerable distance from the action, while huddling for warmth with some combination of friends, lovers, family members and even strangers. But what the events lack in raw entertainment value, they make up for with the euphoria of shared catharsis.
Having been in our nation’s capital this past Monday, I can personally report that there was plenty of catharsis after President Barack Obama’s speech. His pointed address galvanized the Democratic faithful, crystallized the state of play in Washington, D.C., and served as both a review of the political currents of the last four years and a preview of the battles to come.
The most obvious shift – in regards to both his first inaugural address and his conduct during his first term – was in his approach toward the opposition.
As much as Republicans like to kvetch about his first four years, this Democratic president signed $237 billion in stimulus tax cuts for individuals and businesses, enacted a health care plan similar to the one Bob Dole voted for in 1994 and agreed to $550 billion in non-entitlement, non-defense spending cuts over the next decade, rather than siding with Bill Clinton, invoking the 14th Amendment and leaving the GOP in the lurch.
For a long time, his unofficial motto might as well have been Isaiah 1:18: “Come, let us reason together.”
But now? “Go ahead, make my day” might be a bit more appropriate.
The address contained a succession of shots across the ideological bow. But since so many words were couched in high-minded rhetoric, let me translate the ones with the most biting substance.
When he said, “Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security … do not sap our initiative. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great,” what he meant was, “The debate over the Romney-Ryan Plan is over. I won.”
When he said, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” what he meant was, “I’m not going to even humor the Tea Party anymore.”
And, when he said, “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms,” what he meant was, “My administration will make a full-throated effort to tackle climate change.”
So lavish displays of bipartisanship and a publicly inclusive policymaking process are out, and a cold-eyed focus on results is in. This newly confrontational political stance signals bluff-calling and a series of pitched battles on the domestic front over the next four years. Obama dared the Republicans to drive the country off the fiscal cliff and got $600 billion in new revenue and much of the GOP to vote for tax increases. They have already agreed to raise the debt ceiling in March, fearful of receiving the blame for economic disaster from both an angry public and the White House.
On a variety of other issues, expect Organizing for Action, the new vehicle for Obama’s campaign apparatus, to mobilize public opinion and the White House to use executive orders to circumvent a sclerotic legislative process. We have already seen evidence of this strategy on gun safety (the president issued more than 20 executive orders on it last week). As former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs recently said, “If the NRA’s got a list, then Obama for America has a bigger list.” And last June, Obama unilaterally provided certain classes of undocumented immigrants a two-year deferral from deportation.
The other telling passage in the speech came when he mentioned the Stonewall riots of 1969, broadly seen as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, in the same breath as Seneca Falls (the genesis of women’s suffrage) and Selma (a seminal moment for civil rights).
This from the same president who took pains during a 2008 interview with Pastor Rick Warren to assure the American public that he saw marriage as exclusively the province of one man and one woman. Aided by an overly loquacious vice president, he’s made a dramatic reversal and is better off politically for having done so. He also seized the moral high ground, which is no mean feat.
Although the country is moving in a clearly liberal direction on social issues (successful marijuana ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington state also come to mind), hard-nosed politicking will continue to be the norm because the reality of divided government remains. But whenever you want to lament Washington’s dysfunction, I ask that you remember Winston Churchill’s words: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” We could do a lot worse than nasty attack ads and peaceful transfers of power.