In The News
Obama puts shrewd force behind progressive agenda
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted January 22, 2013
Historically, inaugural speeches are aspirational. Few can quote more than a line or two from the 56 preceding. But the elected president every four years reaches (hopefully up) to inspire us with a general vision – normally without getting bogged down in legislative specifics (that’s more than the duty of the “state of the union” in a few weeks).
January 21, President Barack Hussein Obama went further. His aspiration bulked into muscle. Line after line made policy news. Behind the scenes he was setting projects in motion to accomplish his goals. The combination of speech and savvy has already made this one of the most determinative days in modern American politics, and that will grow if the effort drives the nation to quick change.
Obama’s oratorical skills can make 27 minutes sail by but disguise the power of content and character. Because within the presentation was a prose crescendo of rolled-up-sleeves, a clarion call to action that suggests Obama will no longer suffer fools gladly despite his unflappable manner.
The entire inauguration may have also been misleading playful, from the Obama family relaxed and toying with smart phones in the viewing stand– and Obama openly chewing gum, causing the Internet to erupt in speculation that it was nicotine gum rather than Trident. Vice President Joe Biden during the parade ran around like a frisky 70-year-old puppy. The friendliness may have distracted the media but the sheer energy and focus gave viewers a sharp contrast to the stodgy, dull though younger opponents trapped in aged 19th century fiscal policy, Scott Walker and Paul Ryan. They exude fear over a debt that the public trusts Obama to manage.
A surgical simple speech reminded them of his careful perspective and balance. Oh sure, Obama startled FOX News by praising collective action. (Socialist, they muttered). But they didn’t note the sense he also spoke: “We have never succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone.”
And he redefined in pragmatic terms how government helps individualism breathe: “A modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers. . . . a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.”
His operating salvo was a grownup speaking to Tea Party children about what a job-short US needs right now: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.”
Without finding fault with the founders, Obama praised the framework they set that has allowed America to mature beyond musket warfare. His nuanced intellectualism rises above the GOP’s clown car buffoonery of narrowly “conservative” social views that refuse to change with the times.
Yes, Obama made clear that cuts are on the table. He directly will attack “outworn programs,” will refine costs and assure longevity but he will never impede preserving “Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security” – never before named and so bluntly defended in an inaugural.
He directly parroted Romney and Ryan’s “takers” view of the middle class during the election, using a brief eloquent reminder that the real risk-takers were the people who earned those entitlements -- parents sacrificing their own comfort to raise families. Should we just abandon them?
Obama warned foreign enemies like Iran that the greatest military power on earth has the strength to offer negotiation first. He saved his harder rebuke for his domestic enemies who had mistaken “absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
That’s because the domestic agenda is what he concentrated on. His foreign stance is not in jeopardy. Several times he defended the necessity of science, a pet peeve of the right, and promised action on climate change, another pet peeve, and he hesitated not at all to assume that economic progress was intrinsically tied to lifting the middle class with responsible not panicked spending cuts.
He bluntly promised a new reality: “We will respond to the threat of climate change.” He backed down not a whit on protecting the nation’s children with the moral compass of gun regulation.
He made history by stating frankly the need for fair treatment for our “gay brothers and sisters” – followed with comprehensive immigration rights as a chief priority.
Obama specifically named things the GOP centrists actually support such as infrastructure repair and education. His affordable health care and environmental solutions contain concepts and funding mechanisms Republicans had suggested -- until Obama supported them. Now citizens long to see if enough true Republicans are left to backtrack from the extremism that scared them off in 2010.
The speech’s boldness startled pundits on all sides. He probably sent citizens scurrying to the encyclopedia to understand how Seneca Falls (pioneer women’s rights convention), Selma (African American march) and Stonewall (the gay riots against homophobic civil authority) are links in the same chain of civil rights advances not covered in the original Constitution – and all were cases of citizen action against entrenched social narrowness.
Chastened when his first inaugural was larded with the confidence that he could change the tone of Washington from the inside (how did that go, Barack?), he has turned hard to the need to change Washington from the outside through citizen action if it won’t change within. This week he set the nonprofit wheels churning before his opponents even thought to start the ignition.
Organizing for Obama, the OFA that helped elect him in 2008, became Organizing for America in 2009 to re-elect him. OFA has now become Organizing for Action, spurred by video from Michelle Obama, major contact machinery and nonprofit fund-raising apparatus.
It was community organizing – once used to deride him -- that rendered the Koch-Rove-Addison millions impotent (or reduced them to trying to cut into his big margins of victory, which hardly gives comfort to those like Walker relying on that money in 2014.)
So while Sarah Palin’s patented negative stupidity dominated the right, Obama worked in the real world of data, social technology, personal contacts and passion for ideas -- community organizing sophistication that has gathered some 16 million supporters who want to work on his continuing agenda (and may morph into a powerful opposition force in local elections in 2014).
But this was not the vanity victory lap of a second term, nor was it Obama unchained – it was determination to ride the arc he had long laid down and reach outside D.C. to make as much happen as he can.
Consider for a moment what this means for knee-jerk opponents. The opposition has been controlled by a Silas Marner view of society, a “get your own and oppose all government that doesn’t bend over to help you get your own.” The constitutional scholar in Obama is making a larger point the public agrees with since he has their backing and can grow it, and he made his points surrounded by Supreme Court justices who will soon have to rule on many issues he discussed.
All such speeches are padded to touch on every topic millions of listeners want to hear. Each is open to quoting a few items that can sound like platitudes. But this one? You have to stretch to make it inconsequential. Its determination was blunt prose masquerading as poetry.
Lincoln’s brief “malice
toward none, charity for all” is the ultimate single-issue poetry, thus the greatest. FDR in 1937 was even more boldly declarative while over-reaching politically. Historians may well conclude that among “second inaugural” speeches Obama’s rates close. He subtly glances off US history and the Declaration of Independence more than the Bible. Hasty media technologists employing “word cloud” analysis will probably find “we” as in We the People, “you and I” and “together” as the dominant words., which hardly sounds innovative.
Yet in heady insistence on “we” Obama constantly broke headline-making ground as few inaugurals have. If his agenda succeeds even partly, the speech will become a marvel.
Students of writing and history even now will value the connections . But you need brains and analysis. His oratorical gifts may have distracted the intellectually vacuous clouded by their own pessimism, such as right-wing radio and the JS editorial board.
Even many Republicans honored the speech, because Obama did not engage in partisan stoking. The words were chosen with great care, less coy about his agenda than in 2008. But four years later much of the “liberal” agenda has sort of moved to the middle. It’s hard to doubt climate change after hurricanes and drought. It’s hard to attack health care when the family benefits. It’s hard to attack a violent culture without addressing guns.
So what Obama truly did, just in time, was move once scorned “liberalism” back where it belongs in both parties – to America’s center.
He’s always been progressive and his inaugural was a clear reminder of how far the nation has strayed -- not how he’s moved. Now he is helping reclaim the middle for liberal policies that many in the Republican ranks had long supported, though they may not like the label.
Yet it was the hard left that misunderstood this speech more than the hard right. Many assumed Obama was taking off the gloves and embracing the left’s ideas and tactics.
Yet Obama’s progressive goals are common sense memories of how crazy extreme the right became in driving GOP policy off the cliff.
Many in this now regional GOP minority party – surviving in the US House because of gerrymandered districts since Democrats actually drew a million more votes -- are not ready to move all the way to the Democratic ranks, but they sure wish the GOP would move back.
And how doubly weird that the public figure that has made the most sympathetic argument for reasonable skepticism about what government can do (a GOP hallmark) has been Barack Obama, whose inaugural was clearly an aggressive warning shot to the Tea Party GOP that his view of the nation’s middle will succeed.
That is the stick with the carrot. Even gerrymandered seats will not be long safe from voter unhappiness if his popularity and approach survive.
Jaded pundits say he is a lame-duck president and actually only has 18 months to accomplish anything before the 2014 elections.
But they have not caught on how Obama with millions of clever determined activists behind him has already made unique moves to assure he will be aggressive for a full four years. And is trusting the public’s common sense. His speech suggested all things are possible. Want to bet against him?