Will The Next 4 Years Be Better Than The Last?
By Shmuel Leeb
President Obama’s second term officially began Sunday with a brief, quiet White House ceremony in which he took the oath of office and prepared himself for the task of selling his liberal policy agenda to the country. He began that task the next day, by delivering an inaugural address with a much more liberal and combative tone than the one he delivered four years ago, reflecting the lessons he has learned from the political battles he has fought with Republicans during his first term.
This address had a greater sense of urgency than his speech four years ago, when he was swept into office on a wave of public optimism. That feeling has now vanished, replaced by a continuing confrontation between Obama and congressional Republicans who are determined to resist his efforts to impose his liberal agenda on the country. Obama left no room for doubt about his determination to lead the country down the liberal path he outlined in the speech.
In this address, Obama was more openly committed than ever before to pressing that liberal agenda, for which he advocated passionately and without apology. It was the clearest statement yet of the principles, goals and priorities which will guide his actions through his second term.
The speech was warmly greeted by Obama’s liberal supporters as a full throated declaration of their shared principles. Conservatives saw it as an open challenge to some of their most cherished values, and a continuation of Obama’s efforts to use the federal government to redistribute income from the rich to the poor.
Analysts said that it was a speech that could only be given by a leader who knows that he will never have to face election again, and therefore does not need to pull his political punches, or camouflage his true beliefs and intentions for fear of offending certain groups of voters.
It was also the speech of a leader who is in a hurry, one who knows that he has a limited amount of time to implement a long agenda before his political influence wanes as the end of his second term approaches. Some of those agenda items, such as immigration reform and measures to slow global warming, are unfinished business from his first term, while others, such as gun control measures and the extension of civil rights to additional groups, are new. In the process, he openly challenged traditional family values by redefining marriage, and equated that initiative with the struggles of the civil rights movement to achieve legal equality for blacks 50 years ago.
REDEFINING THE AMERICAN HERITAGE
He opened his speech with a quote from the Declaration of Independence, and then added, “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” In the rest of his speech Obama sought to portray his liberal policy goals as a 21st century extension of the basic American principles of equality and opportunity. “That is our generation’s task—to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American,” he said.
One commentator said that in his speech, Obama sought to portray himself as “a liberated and fiercely committed progressive who believes he is an agent for social justice and fairness.”
The speech was unusually detailed for a presidential inaugural address, including specific legislative proposals that one would have expected him to present in his February 12th State of the Union address, to be delivered before a joint session of Congress.
Obama made his priorities over the next four years very clear, as well as his intention to protect core Democrat social and entitlement programs during a time of tight spending limits.
A CALL FOR BASIC CHANGES
While the 19 minute speech included the standard calls for bipartisan unity in Washington, overall, essentially it was an effort to convince the American people that basic changes are needed in the way the country approaches the challenges of our times, and our concepts of how government should be run.
For example, Obama vigorously defended the need for maintaining current entitlement programs, and rejected calls by conservatives to find ways to bring their costs under control. “We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. . . The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” Obama said.
Refuting a comment made by Mitt Romney during the presidential campaign, Obama said that these entitlement programs, “do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley at Rice University in Houston, said that the speech shows that Obama sees himself as, “the firewall progressive,” whose prime second term mission is to serve as “the protector of programs from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society,” even though they have grown too expensive for the country to maintain.
US POISED FOR GROWTH
Obama portrayed the country as poised to rebound from a particularly difficult period. “This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.”
While calling on the American people to seize this moment “together,” he also made it clear that he is determined to fight to achieve the political goals which he has set for his second term. One analyst said that rather than being a call to unity, Obama’s inauguration speech was a call to arms for his liberal base.
Republican Congressman Darrell Issa expressed disappointment with Obama’s speech, saying that, “compromise should have been the words for today, and they clearly weren’t. We were hoping that he would use this day to reach out to all Americans and to all parties. He clearly did not.”
Many thought that the speech was primarily intended to please the liberal Democrat base which helped to re-elect him, and offered little for the 49% who voted against him. Portions of it were clearly aimed to appeal to specific segments of the Democrat voter base, such as a call for equal pay for female workers, the repeal of laws requiring the deportation of illegal aliens, and a plea on behalf of American children for stricter gun control measures.
OBAMA’S VIEW ON THE US ROLE IN THE WORLD
Obama disputed critics who say that he has presided over the decline of America’s role as the leader of the free world, and asserted that the US is still playing the central role on the global stage.
“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe, and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” Obama said.
However, he is also accelerating the pace of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan and has deliberately had the US take a secondary role in responding to international crises from the Arab Spring revolutions in Libya and Syria. Obama has continued to backtrack in the face of the looming Iranian nuclear threat, and his speech made it clear that he is determined to go to great lengths to avoid any military confrontation with this country’s enemies
CONTRASTS WITH THE FIRST OBAMA INAUGURAL
Obama delivered the inaugural speech immediately after taking a ceremonial oath of office before cheering onlookers who filled the National Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Estimates put the size of the crowd at between 800,000 to 1,000,000 people.
Obama was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts against a backdrop of red, white and blue bunting and American flags, with his family looking on.
The lavish inauguration ceremony was scheduled to coincide with the celebration of the federal holiday marking the birthday of black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
As festive as it was, the inauguration was muted compared with his first inauguration four years ago, which was attended by about twice the number of people as the ceremony Monday.
The enthusiasm then over Obama’s hope-and-change 2008 campaign theme was quickly overtaken by the bitter political battles he has had with Republicans almost since the start of his first term. In particular, the political strong-arm tactics which Obama and the Democrats used to push Obamacare through Congress without any Republican support or input, and over the vehement objections of American public opinion caused lingering resentment.
Using a Democrat supermajority in both houses of Congress during his first two years in office, Obama succeeded in passing the most liberal legislative program in 40 years, but the price was a polarized electorate which led to the loss of the Democrat majority in the House in 2010, and the slowest US economic recovery in decades.
CHALLENGING THE REPUBLICANS
While sounding broad themes in tribute to American democracy and equal opportunity, Obama put the Republican opposition on notice that he intends to vigorously push his liberal agenda. Even as he called for national unity, Obama exhorted his supporters to rise up against the political deadlock in Washington which threatens to frustrate its implementation.
“For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” Obama said.
He also referenced the economic class warfare rhetoric which marked his re-election campaign. “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.” Obama called it “our generation’s task” to make the values of “life and liberty” real for every American.
“We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” Obama said, but he offered no new ideas to address that long-term economic problem.
REPUBLICAN GOOD WILL GESTURES
For the sake of the festive occasion, Washington partisanship was temporarily put on hold as Republican congressional leaders offered the president their good wishes and welcomed the prospect of bipartisan collaboration in the days to come.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor issued electronic congratulations to Obama an instant after he took the oath. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell also wished Obama well, but made it clear that the Republican goals for his second term include initiatives to cut federal spending and deficits.
“The president’s second term represents a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day; particularly, the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt,” McConnell said. “Republicans are eager to work with the president on achieving this common goal, and we firmly believe that divided government provides the perfect opportunity to do so.”
GOP Senator Rob Portman said that in his speech, Obama missed an opportunity to reach out to Republicans in an effort to find common ground with them, particularly on the issue of deficit reduction.
GOP Senator Ron Johnson said that he detected no desire in Obama’s speech to sit down and honestly work with Republicans in good faith.
Obama briefly mentioned the need to reform the federal tax code, to harness new technology to make government more efficient, and to keep the American economy competitive and generating new jobs. But these fiscal and economic issues were almost an afterthought in a speech that was largely devoted to promoting classic liberal policy goals.
REPUBLICANS IN RETREAT
These Republican comments should be read in the context of the strategic decision they made last week to put off one of the looming fiscal policy confrontations with Obama by offering to extend the federal debt ceiling of $16.4 trillion for three months without requiring specific dollar for dollar spending cuts in return.
This violates a promise made by House Speaker John Boehner to Republicans when he agreed to the fiscal cliff deal that they would make a stand by insisting on spending cuts before agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. Now they won’t.
The federal government has already come up against the current debt limit, and is using bookkeeping tricks to keep paying its operating bills. Obama has insisted that he will not negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt limit as he did in the summer of 2011. The decision by the GOP leadership to back away from that confrontation reflects its assessment that they will have more political leverage in negotiating with Obama over other looming fiscal issues. These include efforts to avoid the mandatory sequestration of 10% of government spending across the board, and the need for Congress to pass a new budget resolution to fund government operations.
Meanwhile, chalk this up as another Obama win.
As Obama starts his second term, his popularity is the highest it has been in two years. In the battle over the fiscal cliff, he beat the Republicans so soundly that many are now reluctant to take him on again in the months ahead over the fiscal issues cited above.
OBAMA’S NEW CHALLENGE
Obama and his supporters have spent much of the past two years explaining away his failures to revive the American economy, and to bring down the cost of health care, among many other failings.
But now that he has been re-elected, he and his programs will be judged by the voters according to a higher standard.
He will now be expected to start delivering more progress on his promises, such as igniting economic growth, putting more of the unemployed back to work, and boosting the income and standard of living for middle-class families. Despite his class warfare political rhetoric, middle-class incomes declined throughout his first term, and took yet another hit at the start of this month with end of a “temporary” 2% reduction in Social Security taxes withheld from every paycheck in America.
Voters will also expect Obama to deliver progress on some of this country’s longer-term problems such as debt reduction, immigration reform and making higher education more affordable and effective.
Finally, voters will be paying close attention as the main provisions of ObamaCare start going into effect. If it fulfills the promises Obama made for it over the next two years, it will become the crown jewel of Obama’s presidency. But if does not succeed, congressional Democrats are likely to face disaster in the 2014 midterm election.
OBAMA’S RHETORIC GETTING HARSHER
Obama’s speech reveals no desire on his part to reach across party lines to start building a bi-partisan consensus for his second term. Since his electoral victory Obama’s rhetoric against his Republican opponents has only grown harsher.
For example, in defending his call for stricter federal gun control laws last week, Obama demonized its opponents as “politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty, not because that’s true but because they want to gin up fear.” He added that “they’ll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.”
In other words, Obama condemned everyone who disagrees with him over gun control as not just wrong but also cynical, corrupt and obstructionist.
While this rhetoric may appeal to liberal activists, it is not the way to fashion a compromise that can pass Congress during the next two years of divided government. Obama may be looking forward to Democrats taking back control of the House in 2014, enabling him to pass his liberal agenda without regard to Republican opposition, as he did during his first two years. But by that time he may be a lame duck president, with diminishing political influence.
OBAMA ABANDONING THE MIDDLE GROUND
On the other hand, having run for re-election as an ideological liberal, Obama has now abandoned any pretense of governing from the middle, as he did at his first inauguration. Obama can be confident that the coalition of minorities, young people, single women, affluent whites and members of the culturally liberal media will continue to support his agenda. The question is how long that support will last if Obama cannot deliver on the promises he has made to them, especially with respect to the sluggish economy.
Obama needs to generate much faster economic growth, not only to meet his promises to the middle class, but also to pay for all the new liberal spending commitments he made during his first term, to say nothing of the new ones on his agenda now.
One way to do that would be to follow the example of Bill Clinton during his second term by reaching a long term deal with Republicans to reduce deficit spending and reform the tax code and entitlements. That resulted in balanced budgets and one of the fastest economic growth rates in recent decades.
The alternative for Obama is an economy that keeps growing too slowly, bumping along from one Washington political crisis to the next.
AN ISOLATED PRESIDENT
Another potential problem revealed during Obama’s first term is the insularity of his inner circle of advisors. Many Obama cabinet members have privately complained that he has a tough time delegating real authority to them on important issues. That is a main reason why so many of his first term cabinet members are leaving. The problem is only compounded by the fact that Obama is choosing their replacements largely from existing members of his White House inner circle.
The presidency is one of the most isolating jobs in the world. In order to make properly informed policy decisions, a president needs exposure to different points of view. Obama may be the most isolated president since Richard Nixon. He cannot afford to surround himself during his second term with “yes” men inclined to agree with his preformed ideas, but that is what he has been doing.
In his meetings with US business leaders, for example, they report that he is usually too intent on getting them to accept his position than to listen to what they are trying to tell him. Obama also badly needs to listen to outside opinions on US policy toward Israel. Even some Democrat congressional leaders have expressed resentment at Obama’s refusal to consult with them on a regular basis.
A lot of it is a question of management skills. One thing that Obama clearly lacks is experience successfully running an organization as complex as the federal government. No matter how skilled a president may be, he cannot do it all by himself, or with the help of just a handful of close friends, which, according to some White House observers, often seems to be what Obama has been trying to do.
DIFFICULT REPUBLICAN CHOICES
There is cold comfort in Republicans hoping to see Obama‘s policies continue to fail so that they can win control of the Senate in 2014, or the White House two years later.
While it will take some political courage for them to change course and work with him when they can, the country now needs opposition leaders determined to helping the president to govern better rather than continuing to work to obstruct his agenda, no matter how much they may disagree with it.
But there are two sides to such an arrangement, and it is not clear at this point that Obama will be willing to accept such Republican help, even if it is offered.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.