Monday, January 21, 2013

Obama strips his credo to essentials while widening his net

From the beginning of his national career, Obama's core message has been that what our current political configuration defines as liberal priorities fulfill the promise of America's founding documents. That is, government's function is to ensure an equal shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- and to pool collective resources to create conditions in which opportunity is optimized for all. Today, at his second inaugural, Obama delivered that credo in short form:
we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action
Obama cast a wide net in defining what's entailed by pursuing equality of opportunity in this country and seeking to foster it abroad. It entails not only preserving entitlements for the elderly but fighting income inequality, not only fostering alternative energy industries for economic purposes but fighting climate change that is already upon us, not only reducing unequal opportunity for citizens but expanding opportunity for immigrants, not only securing equal pay for women but complete equal rights for "our gay brothers and sisters."

Obama did not provide a lot of policy detail as he laid out the tasks required to fulfill the nation's charter.  But I was heartened by a few hand signals, e.g.:

  • We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. That is: health care reform is entitlement reform -- and is almost the whole ball of wax with regard to deficit reduction.  Success in reducing the cost of health care is the sine qua non for the immediate followup: "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." 

  • We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are na├»ve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.  Does that signal a new negotiating push with Iran, and a determination not to bomb?

  • 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. Forward, that is, with the painstaking work of building multilateral coalitions for effective action and multilateral institutions to foster free and fair world trade.

  • Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm. I believe Obama choked up for a moment there. The push for gun control will be full-bore.

  • We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall. Hear, O disgruntled left, and take a cue from Paul the-stimulus-was-too-small! Krugman today: "maybe progressives — an ever-worried group — might want to take a brief break from anxiety and savor their real, if limited, victories."
I won't say it was the most inspiring speech Obama has ever delivered. There was a lot of elision -- traditional Obama themes just sketched in -- e.g., his idealized Short History of America got very short indeed; his 'more perfect union' was stepped down to "new responses to new challenges"; his "you are the change" mantra was demystified to "You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course" and to an equation drawn between his own oath of office and that of a soldier or new citizen. If the nation requires new responses to new challenges, so does his rhetoric, and perhaps only crisis can force out a new birth of reconception on that front (as the Newtown massacre began to do). But today's was a solid, sober distillation of his credo and outline of his course ahead.

Update: a lot of folks seem to imply that it was a departure for Obama to tie his policy preferences to the nation's founding documents and historical tradition. It's not.

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