By GLENN THRUSH
President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address was the most liberal speech he has delivered as president — a blunt summons to wage war on poverty, defend entitlements for the middle class, end “perpetual war” overseas and move past the calibrated progressive agenda of his first term.
Gone were the pleas for bipartisanship of his first inaugural, vaporized by years of partisan battle and Obama’s own sense of a new mandate — achieving bipartisan results through force, not conciliation.
Absent, too, were calls for a “balanced approach” to the deficit, the grist of his 2012 campaign speeches, replaced by a naked appeal for the country to forcefully address economic inequality for the sake of its future strength, a theme that strongly echoed John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address.
“We must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice — not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of [our] principles,” Obama said, addressing, as Kennedy did, his foes both domestic and foreign.
Obama wanted Monday’s speech, which was mostly finished by the weekend, to bookend with the landmark 2004 address he gave at the Democratic National Convention, his aides said.
But if that speech, which established Obama as a national player, was plaintive (“People don’t expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life.”), this one was overtly confrontational.
In a challenge to the GOP, Obama mentioned the country’s $16.4 trillion debt load once and then, only to announce his stalwart opposition to slashing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit,” said Obama, who viewed Monday’s address as an introductory passage to the more policy-specific State of the Union in a few weeks.
“But 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. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm.”
He discussed his support for gay rights in detail — which he dodged in previous speeches — but omitted his recent call for sweeping gun-control measures, leaving that, presumably, for his State of the Union address in February.
In the short term, the powerful speech — delivered with an unreserved verve not seen much since the 2008 campaign — signals a tough battle ahead on deficit reduction, budget-cutting and entitlement reform for Republicans.
The language came as a relief to liberals, who have long decried Obama’s caution and unwillingness to make a larger case for their views. Atlantic Editor James Fallows, a former White House speechwriter, tweeted that the address was “the most sustainedly ‘progressive’ statement Barack Obama has made in a decade.”
Fox News analyst Brit Hume, on the other side of the spectrum, tweeted that Obama’s words were “utterly bereft” of outreach to the opposition.
That was just the way the White House wanted it. Obama, armed with an approval rating in the 50s, has decided the only way he can defeat Hill Republicans is to muster public opinion against them.
It seemed to reflect the mind-set of the audience — smaller but more determined and liberal than the million-plus revelers who braved the cold for history’s sake four years ago.
“He said a lot of stuff I wanted to hear,” said John Bethea who traveled to Washington from Downingtown, Pa. “I loved what he said about health care; I loved what he said about gay rights; it was all really good to hear. I think sometimes he tries to be centrist. It was a good tone to take that he’s going to do all he can. Psyched is an understatement.”
Thelancy Price, an Obama-backer from Charlotte, N.C., said Obama was tapping a shift in the country’s sentiment.
“He confidently stated he wants to be inclusive,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised, but I’m glad he said it. I didn’t come last time, but I wanted to come today. I still feel like I’m part of this movement of change. It’s still going. There’s a shift in the country, and you heard that in his speech.”
The president, aides say, viewed his convincing victory over Mitt Romney as a validation of his we’re-in-it-together worldview. About halfway through his pithy 2,000-word speech, Obama took an apparent swipe at Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment from the campaign, which suggested Obama had essentially bought off about half the elctorate through government largesse.
“The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” he said. “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
In 2008, Obama talked in grand, soaring terms about the need to put aside partisan rancor toward Republicans.
In 2012, he seemed to seek the silence of the vanquished. Obama, who spent $100 million or more on negative ads against Romney, offered a plea for political peace shouted like a war whoop.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” he said. “We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial.”
Given the opposition he’s still likely to face in Congress and the reality most second-term presidents seldom achieve what they set out to do, it’s most likely that Obama’s victories will be partial.
As if to underscore that point, the camera on Obama panned across the reviewing stand next to the Capitol steps to reveal the disapproving visage of Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), the tea party favorite who recently mused that the massacre in Newtown, Conn., wouldn’t have happened if the school’s principal had an M-4 semi-automatic rifle in her office.