The Overstated Inaugural Address

The consensus about Barack Obama’s inaugural address is right. It was the most fulsome presidential defense of liberalism we have heard since 1965, and the most programmatically specific inaugural speech since the 1930s. This was also the rhetoric of a partisan who believes his opponents are losers and fools who won’t have much threat left in them 10 years from now.

But before liberals feel too deep a thrill, they should consider the following proposition: Obama’s words will be paired with a second term resume that could be the thinnest since Richard Nixon. Given the alignment in the House, and the number of red state Democratic senators on the ballot in 2014, there is no viable chance Obama can actually enact a single item on the liberal wish list. Not one–from an assault weapons ban to an overhaul of corporate deductions, to cap and trade, to comprehensive immigration reform, to a government financed infrastructure plan, to a recalibrated war on poverty, to campaign finance reform.

So, Obama Part 2 is more about the tactical work of isolating conservatives than classic presidential legacy building: in other words, not so different from the stalemate of the second half of Obama’s first term. Of course, for liberals, the president’s middling results have had the perverse consequence of providing a rallying cry without a record of accomplishments that are susceptible to backfire (the backlash at Obamacare is a window into how vulnerable Obama might have been if he had managed to pass legislation on immigration or climate change).

This entirely unpredictable element–that gridlock has spared Democrats the consequences of their policies floundering–coupled with the shifting demographics that Republicans have struggled to adjust to, have left an altered political landscape. If not quite the liberal dawn that some Democrats are prematurely celebrating (as they did four years ago), the terrain is changed enough that major stretches of Obama’s speech already seem more boilerplate than visionary.

And in that shifting space, Republicans have lost ground. For example, there will still be a robust immigration debate, but the goal of deporting large-scale numbers of undocumented immigrants is a political non-starter. The Affordable Care Act will remain controversial, as premiums rise and its taxes and mandates touch real lives and businesses, but the baseline of the fight will be an acceptance that universal healthcare is a contemporary social value. Republicans will contest the inevitable new taxes Democrats propose, but with the burden of having conceded that not all tax increases kill job growth.

And the final thought? The sad recognition that we are really two cultures now, with fewer shared ideals than ever. There are the Americans who wept happily yesterday at Obama’s survival, and the Americans who wanted the speech turned off at eating establishments. We are now practicing equal but separate.        

  1. Whiskey Sam
    Artur Davis: We are now practicing equal but separate.         · · 4 minutes ago

    Great line, and very true.

  2. DocJay

    And the final thought? The sad recognition that we are really two cultures now, with fewer shared ideals than ever. There are the Americans who wept happily yesterday at Obama’s survival, and the Americans who wanted the speech turned off at eating establishments. We are now practicing equal but separate.      

    Profound!  The whole article was wonderful too including your perception of the health care issue.

  3. Illiniguy

    Another thing that can’t be overlooked is that events tend to overtake Presidents in their second terms, and I don’t think it’s going to be long before this President’s agenda is swept aside by things that he’ll be totally unable to control.

  4. drlorentz

    More than isolating conservatives, the speech panders to the Progressive base. It is little more than a celebration inside an ideological bubble. Be of good cheer; this too shall pass away.

  5. Paul Dougherty
    Illiniguy: Another thing that can’t be overlooked is that events tend to overtake Presidents in their second terms, and I don’t think it’s going to be long before this President’s agenda is swept aside by things that he’ll be totally unable to control. · 1 minute ago

    You’re correct about that. I think Republicans would do well to battle the inevitable  “Well, if not this President, then no mere mortal could have either seen this coming or done anything to avoid it.”,  narrative from the palace guard press.

  6. BrentB67

    Mr. Davis I think you give too much credit to the republican opposition. As the past four years have worn on they have proven repeatedly they are willing accomplices in Barack Obama’s expansion of the federal hand.

    Yes, there are some Tea Party oriented Senators and Representatives, but they are a minority within the caucus.

    I will not be at all shocked to see an assault weapons ban pass the House, after all that is what greases the invitation to the NY Times cocktail parties.

  7. Crow
    Artur Davis: …If not quite the liberal dawn that some Democrats are prematurely celebrating(…), the terrain is changed enough that major stretches of Obama’s speech already seem more boilerplate than visionary.

    And in that shifting space, Republicans have lost ground. For example, there will still be a robust immigration debate, but the goal of deporting large-scale numbers of undocumented immigrants is a political non-starter. The Affordable Care Act will remain controversial, as premiums rise and its taxes and mandates touch real lives and businesses, but the baseline of the fight will be an acceptance that universal healthcare is a contemporary social value….

    Yes, this is basically my reading of the situation as well, and that is why, in the wake of November 6th, I’ve been saying that this election is the first in which a majority (narrow, but nonetheless) affirmed social democracy over constitutional republicanism.

    Now, that doesn’t mean the fight is over, doesn’t mean we’ll never hold the White House again, and doesn’t even preclude the possibility of a Glorious Restoration.

    But the sands have shifted, and we must be attendant to that fact and its consequences.

  8. Bruce in Marin
    Artur Davis:  Republicans will contest the inevitable new taxes Democrats propose, but with the burden of having conceded that not all tax increases kill job growth.

    Have Republicans conceded that, or have they acquiesced in tax increases because they were already written into law and they lacked the political numbers to change that?  Going forward, will they grudgingly accept some tax increases as the price of arriving at some deal on entitlements and spending cuts, or will they simply accept them because, after all, they concede that they’re not really all that bad for the economy?

     You’d know better than I which of these interpretations is most applicable of our representatives in congress, and I wouldn’t presume to argue with you.  But I’m quite sure the denizens of Ricochet, many of whom are Republicans, have made no such concession. 

  9. Bryan G. Stephens
    Paul Dougherty: There was a dynamic where one party was percieved to be in “power”, even in sharing control. We can reference the Republican administration from 2006-2008. If one side is percieved as in command, the other side is free from responsibility. In this state, the party out of power is liberated to rhetroically attack and shape the narrative without consequence for policy.

      How did we get here? Now we have the party in power using, irresponsibly, the  tools of rhetoric to shape the narrative  while shifting the consequence of responsibilty to the percieved out of power party. Remarkable. · 1 hour ago

    No matter what we do, we lose. We win elections and we lose. We lose elections and “bad things” are out fault.

    We have lost any control of the narrative. Without that, the other side will always win.

    Since we are not going to regain control of the narrative, the only thing left is to look inward to save friends and families the best we can in the great American Decline.

    The Great Experiment is over. It turns out that the run of a Republic is not much past 2 and 1/4 centuries.

  10. Merina Smith

    I think, as was suggested on another thread recently, that federalism will be our salvation.  The red states that follow conservative principles are already running circles around the states mired in blue.  Obama used new media and shameless lying to defeat Romney, but people won’t be blind to failure forever.  He’s also been helped out by our fortunate energy boom, though he has done all he could to suppress it.  But things are still really bad and not likely to get better under this man. 

    History rarely proceeds as people expect.  Things don’t look great now, except when you look at how Republicans are doing in the states and then it looks pretty darn good.  Also, we have great leaders rising.  Can you name a single rising dem leader under 65?  I didn’t think so.  Now, it is true that we have large philosophical gulf between the parties, but events are going to help with that too.  No country can survive when takers outnumber makers, and makers lose their patience with takers when the downward spiral gets bad enough.  In the meantime we have the states to serve as a buffer from the worst of Obama.

  11. Pseudodionysius

    an acceptance that universal healthcare is a contemporary social value….

    In Canada the move has already begun in our most populous province to stop reporting abortion statistics, because of privacy concerns. Someone might do something crazy, of course. In a country with strict gun control, of course.

    The scuttlebutt is its to stifle the appearance of alarming numbers of sex selective abortions by our diverse multicultural mosaic. I’m sure you all have nothing to worry about.

  12. Leslie Watkins

    I so wish he’d quit using we when what he means to say is obviously I.

  13. Goldgeller
    Artur Davis: 

    And the final thought? The sad recognition that we are really two cultures now, with fewer shared ideals than ever. There are the Americans who wept happily yesterday at Obama’s survival, and the Americans who wanted the speech turned off at eating establishments. We are now practicing equal but separate.         · · 18 hours ago

    You made a lot of very interesting points. Tensions are getting high. A lot of this is coming from the realization that much of statist government comes directly at someone else’s expense. This isn’t all Obama’s fault. It’s not a new thing, but some of this is “community organization” on steroids. Enemies have been “punished” at the ballot pox. This isn’t just a US phenomena, the statist project is unravelling in the EU as well, with similar effects. There are more and more groups of people now who realize their government is looting they can’t ignore it. And this is a bi-partisan thing. 

  14. Pseudodionysius

    Update:

    Looks like Phil Lawler found today’s New York Times confirming my comment #13. That was quick.

  15. BrentB67
    Artur Davis: …

    Several of you make a worthwhile point: Democrats have pulled off the strategic coup of holding Republicans accountable for Obama’s tepid economy. But we aid that strategy when we gloss over the shortcomings of Bush II.

    Finally, Obamacare will over-promise and under-perform. It will figure more prominently in 2016 than 2012. · 10 hours ago

    I think this is an excellent point. The next republican or conservative Presidential nominee will do well to run against republicans circa 2006 as they will against democrats.

    Gov. Romney started this in an interview with the WSJ, but like most things courageous in his campaign it was quickly stifled.

    The next battle is Liberty vs. Statism. Running two campaings about who is the more efficient statis will always result in the status quo (see Nov 2012).

    Run against big government whether it was led by an R or D and that is a winning strategy.

  16. Illiniguy
    Pseudodionysius: Update:

    Looks like Phil Lawler found today’s New York Times confirming my comment #13. That was quick. · 4 minutes ago

    Pseudo speaks, people listen.

  17. Artur Davis
    C

    A few responses: to be sure, there were a combination of good reasons for Republicans to swallow the deficit reduction deal, from skittishness about the markets to the weak hand the GOP was dealt after the Bush cuts actually expired. But the fact that a Republican House and all but a few Republican senators voted to cancel 82 percent of the Bush tax cuts is a victory Democrats will pocket and brandish in future debates, especially if the economy grows even a little. 

    Re the observation that voters embraced social democracy: it may simply be that most voters want some tangible return on the one third of their checks they send to Washington. The reality is that few voters process the theoretical debates that animate many conservatives; instead, they grade government on whether it works for their interests. Distressing for some of us, but hardly irrational.

    Several of you make a worthwhile point: Democrats have pulled off the strategic coup of holding Republicans accountable for Obama’s tepid economy. But we aid that strategy when we gloss over the shortcomings of Bush II.

    Finally, Obamacare will over-promise and under-perform. It will figure more prominently in 2016 than 2012.

  18. Cornelius Julius Sebastian

    I’m glad I didn’t listen to the speech, but I’m even more glad I read this post.  Bravo, sir.  The principal political trajectories of our nation are indeed pointing to more balkanization and polarization…. 

  19. Paul Dougherty

    If I remember right, Pres. Bush left office with about a nineteen percent approval. It seems to be a convenient convention to assume that his support eroded from the middle, to the right, leaving only the most conservative in mind to support him. I contend that he only held the middle and his shrinking support was lost from the right. Immigration reform and Medicare Part D, and No Child Left Behind, and ignoring deficits did not endear him to his right flank. Not conceding to left leaning arguments of “too much greed”, “blood for oil”, and ” war criminal”, is not so much a defense of Pres. Bush, but a rejection of the left’s world view. Again, welcome Mr. Davis, I look forward to your writings. They are important.

  20. Israel P.
    Artur Davis: Given the alignment in the House, and the number of red state Democratic senators on the ballot in 2014, there is no viable chance Obama can actually enact a single item on the liberal wish list. Not one–from an assault weapons ban to an overhaul of corporate deductions, to cap and trade, to comprehensive immigration reform, to a government financed infrastructure plan, to a recalibrated war on poverty, to campaign finance reform.

    Seems to me that there are two parts. Two years of not getting things done and having the Republicans blamed.

    Two years of doing the agenda after capturing the House and SCOTUS while holding the Senate.

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