A sparkling inaugural day has been succeeded by the predictable clouds of carping, along with a dull haze of partisanship from the irrepressible Republican ideologues in the House. We’ve been told, for example, that Obama’s “somber” inaugural address didn’t measure up to the joyous moment—that the speech was, well, good enough, but neither eloquent nor enduring. That’s not the speech I heard, which was an unvarnished report on our current difficulties.
Like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Obama’s speech was marked by an eloquence that goes beyond rhetorical flourishes. Lincoln’s words have long since been engraved in stone. Obama’s will have their own lasting impact—and not simply because of his compelling summons to “follow our better history” or his timeless warning that “a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” For Obama’s inaugural address, like Lincoln’s, is also a great state paper defining “the work of remaking America” for a new chapter of history.
With George W. Bush sitting only a few feet away, the new president rejected his predecessor’s disregard for American “ideals that still light the world” and pledged not to surrender them “for expedience’s sake.” He reached out to old allies and new adversaries and most notably to “the Muslim world”—the first time that phrase was uttered in an inaugural address. While pledging to defend the country, he affirmed the place of our values in the arsenal of democracy and reaffirmed his commitment to negotiation rather than confrontation wherever possible. Here, too, he was eloquent, telling real and potential enemies, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench a fist.” America was ready to lead again, he proclaimed, to the obvious discomfort of Bush.
Less noticed was Obama’s break with the legacy of someone else on the platform. Bill Clinton, a minority President trapped in the twilight of the Reagan years, had famously announced that, “the era of big government is over.” This was one of the “stale political arguments” that Obama now consigned to the recesses of history. The question, he said, is “not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” He signaled that in the present downturn, and in the face of persistent injustices, like the inaccessibility of health care, the scale of action—yes, government action—should and would expand. He killed the sacred cow of unfettered markets, acknowledging “they can spin out of control.” After decades of wholesale deregulation under both parties, he called for righting the balance between private markets and public oversight.
Words are swiftly being translated into deeds. This week, the Obama administration will announce a new regime of financial supervision and safeguards. But Obama also has to deal with early quibbles and a rising partisan resistance. He waived his restriction on lobbyists serving in government in one case, for the new Deputy Secretary of Defense. John McCain professed to be aghast and reporters badgered Obama about it. But what matters more—the exception or the rule?
Few economists, conservative or liberal, doubt that our situation demands a massive increase in government spending along the lines of the early New Deal. But the Republican minority in the House has responded with a combination of ideological rigidity and empty clichés.
Their leader, the preternaturally suntanned John Boehner of wintry Ohio, prattled on the Sunday talk circuit about “wasteful Washington spending.” If he had his way, the result would almost certainly be a second Great Depression. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, seems to sense the danger, not just economically, but politically. He is, he says, ready to co-operate.
The true character of the hardline Republican opposition was revealed after President Obama met with House Republicans to solicit their ideas. They went winless in November, but obviously not shameless, simultaneously complaining that Obama’s stimulus wouldn’t be fully felt for eighteen months or more, then suggesting that the package include extensions of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy—through 2013! They appear to oppose everything but lavishing tax breaks on the rich and invading countries on false pretenses.
Finally, as the President kept his pledge to order the closing of Guantanamo, critics were “shocked, shocked” to learn the process might be lengthy and complicated—that there were unresolved legal issues about whether and where to hold and try prisoners. The point, however, is that torture is banned and Guantanamo will close.
Already, America is reclaiming its standing in the world. People on every continent celebrated the dawn of this presidency as the coming of an early spring. Here at home, Americans overwhelmingly approve of Obama’s first days in office. Last Sunday’s New York Times sported the headline: “Great Limits Come With Great Power, Ex-Candidate Finds.” But I think the ex-candidate long ago recognized that. And despite the difficulties and the ideologues, the larger realities of the nation and the economy suggest that the President will pass his economic recovery, enact his regulatory reforms, and move on to deal successfully with health care and climate change.
In future years Obama’s inaugural address will be seen for what it truly was—a bold vision of a better day, a speech that with elegant restraint defined and heralded the far-reaching change to come.