I let a day go by to digest President Obama’s inaugural address and consider its implications. Waiting a day also allowed me to peruse the insta-pundit response and gauge the impact of the speech — the “secondary explosion” to use military terminology — that carries nearly equal rhetorical power as the initial speech. With this time of reflection I concluded that, contrary to the interpretation of some, this speech accomplished something powerfully mundane by casting the Democrats as the fundamentally “conservative” party in America. And somehow it all has a lot to do with warp engines.
I thought the speech would continue President Obama’s long-standing call for bipartisanship. While some have criticized Obama’s commitment to those calls, I felt it served an important purpose by gently teasing the less engaged, moderate voters away from national Republicans by casting the Republicans as, by default, responsible for gridlock. I expected another go-around of setting up Republicans to take the political fall after they potentially shut down the government, or worse, default on the debt. Obama’s bipartisan tone would set the stage for another successful election in 2014.
While the speech devoted some time calling on politicians to embrace compromise, its tone quickly swung the opposite direction by laying out a defined progressive agenda worth fighting for without compromise. As Charles Pierce put it:
I stopped wondering when the president threw out casually a very barbed passage, which seemed to be directed at everyone who hadn’t gotten the point in the first week of November. After threatening to render the nation comatose by briefly mentioning The Deficit, the president let fly a steel-tipped reminder of who got elected and who didn’t.
But ultimately the strong agenda that Pierce and others talk about was not really an “agenda” as commonly understood. The speech was not long on new plans or proposals and long on calls for inaction — “fidelity” and “protect” — and honoring the past — “commitments” and “lessons from the past.” The bar for presidential success was set at “doing no harm.” The era of President Obama willing to entertain bipartisanship to crush Republicans politically is over — bipartisanship is now defined as the area to the center-left of the status quo.
The idea that President Obama’s second term will achieve progress through inaction is not new. By setting up the preconditions for a rebounding economy cleaving to more fair and progressive terms and passing a health care plan that kicks in during his second term, President Obama gambled that his reelection alone could secure his legacy simply because he could protect and nurture the policies laid out in his first term, regardless of the Congress he had to work with.
The speech we saw yesterday affirmed that President Obama was indeed playing this long game and setting himself up as the principled actor when this term is marked by his resistance to Congress.
We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But 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. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.
Not only is the legislative playing field crisply defined, but Obama employs the natural respect for nostalgia to imbue the commitment to Social Security and Medicare with the sense of heroism it deserves. If President Obama looks to Ronald Reagan for inspiration as much as we’re led to believe, he’s a good study. Reagan’s greatest achievement was killing off over 50 years of conventional wisdom by convincing Americans that the progressive era that started with Theodore Roosevelt, took root under Franklin Roosevelt, and then defined the debate between Republicans and Democrats alike was a momentary usurpation of America’s foundation.
Reagan (and Goldwater before him) branded himself as “conservative” even though there was little historical precedent for his agenda. Americans tend to be conservative, not in the defined political sense as much as the general sense that radical change is generally eschewed in favor of trusting an idealized past. For Reagan’s brand of conservative, this past required fidelity to a strict, textual interpretation of a document less than 10 pages long and a romantic vision of a country that led itself to Civil War by adhering to the ideals Reagan championed.
If this second inaugural address accurately depicts President Obama’s plans for his second term, he is looking to cement the belief that the ideals that governed American domestic policy from the New Deal to 1981 reflect the idealized American dream and the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era was the true usurpation.
And this is the warp engine element. Einstein proved that nothing can move through space faster than the speed of light, but innovative physicists are working on faster than light travel by moving space itself, allowing the ship within a bubble of space to stand still while the space bubble accelerates.
Likewise, for Obama the narrative has now changed and with it “bipartisanship” will move too. For Bill Clinton, reality required moving the Democratic Party to the right to conform with the “universal speed limit” of Reaganism. Barack Obama thinks bolder. He doesn’t want to move the parties as much as he wants to move the nation around the parties.
If President Obama succeeds in keeping the nation on this path, and his successor has the wisdom to continue this long game (is post-2008 Hilary a convert?), the progressive ideal will assume its proper place as the “conservative” worldview in America.