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.