Obama Appeals To Populism And Unity To Blunt Republicans' Intransigence
[Inauguration 2013: Comment]
President Barack Obama repeatedly uttered the words "we the people" during his second inaugural speech in Washington today as a rallying call for unity.
Obama called for a diverse but inclusive United States of America that aspires towards the ideals of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
"Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time," Obama added.
Today's speech was relatively subdued compared to his first inaugural speech and it was about two minutes shorter: but it was efficient and clearly meant to provide a practical approach to moving the country forward, by first addressing the divisions created since 2009, primarily by the Republicans' now failed agenda which was to ensure that Obama had a one-term presidency.
Given the partisan politics and Republican intransigence that almost derailed Obama's major policy agenda and the bitterly contested 2012 presidential election it's not surprising that Obama chose a Lincolnesque theme of unity.
President Obama invoked the U.S. Civil War, which divided this country into the Southern slave-states and the Northern abolitionist states. Obama said the war was fought because the country couldn't endure as half-free and half-slave.
By echoing that period of U.S. history, the president clearly suggests that a divided U.S. won't be able to address many of today's challenges if the nation and Congress remains bitterly divided. It's a clear public acknowledgment of the divisive toll that the Right Wing Republican separatism has taken on this country.
Lincoln's task was more challenging of course as he struggled to unite the country following the war with the confederate states and was ultimately felled by a gunman.
In addition to the racial divides, the president also made a vigorous call for bridging class divisions. He said the U.S. hadn't thrown off the yoke of the British crown in order to create a nation ruled by the elite or by the mob.
Obama might have been referring to the dominant role that money from corporation and wealthy Americans now plays in electing U.S. lawmakers and indeed the president; especially following the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling which eliminated caps on third party donations.
In the last campaign cycle both campaigns spent more than $1 billion each.
The reference to the mob could refer to the importance of having duly elected government in place: it could also be interpreted as criticism of some Tea Party elements whose anti-Obama rhetoric intimidated the more traditional Republicans into opposing every major policy initiative the president attempted over the past four years.
So extreme was the Tea Party that during the primaries last year Republican voters chose candidates who were not electable nationally and the party ended up losing sure-winnable senate seats.
Pushing back against the Tea Party's parochialism and separatism, President Obama made a vigorous defense of the role of Central government. Throughout U.S. history Washington played a critical role: from preserving the union itself to marshaling resources that helped to build the railroads, the highways, and the electric grids that spurred rapid economic growth. Even the Internet, which most of us can't now imagine living without, was developed by the government.
The most sustained applause for President Obama came when he mentioned education: he has been a big proponent of quality education and his administration allocated hundreds of billions of dollars. The administration's Race To The Top program made available billions of dollars to states on a competitive basis, based on how states improved the quality of their education system. Obama has long maintained that the U.S. will lose any remaining economic productivity advantages it still enjoys, to countries such as Brazil, India and China, unless the nation's education system is radically improved.
In a clear reference to the partisan politics that surrounded major policy initiative or legislation -- including the stimulus bill, healthcare reform, financial industry regulation, the debt ceiling negotiations, and the recent fiscal cliff talks -- the president said the nation need not be paralyzed by differences between Democrats and Republicans. The debate over what role Washington should play in the nation's affairs has raged for a long time and won't be resolved overnight, Obama noted.
The president clearly felt the sting from some of the harsh language that characterized the political discourse over the past four years -- after all, how could he forget the moment Republican lawmaker Rep. Joe Wilson who interrupted his State of The Union address when he yelled, "you lie."
The president is clearly gearing up for the challenges he will face, especially in deficit reduction negotiations. Given that the economy has now enjoyed slow but sustained growth for more than two years, popular support can help him resist Republicans' demand for massive cuts in social spending.
Also, without dwelling on the challenges he faced in getting healthcare legislation passed, the president noted that while the country did need to reduce the deficit it should not be done at the expense of affordable healthcare. Republicans still talk about wanting to repeal the historic healthcare legislation. The president said, "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."
The president repeatedly spoke about the principle that all Americans have the right to equal opportunity to pursue their dreams and to enjoy happiness. This is an appeal that worked for the president during the presidential campaign when contrasted with candidate Mitt Romney's now infamous remark that he didn't need to focus on the needs of the 47% of electorate who would always support Obama anyway.
Obama noted that the nation's social safety net benefited many Americans, including working Americans when they lose their jobs. "They do not make us a nation of takers," he said, again throwing a clear jab at Republicans who during the last election cycle claimed many of Obama's voters were dependent on the state. He said "a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune."
On this date of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, Obama also spoke about the need to combat poverty. He said a person born to poverty should have equal chances for success. One of Dr. King's most memorable speech was "Why I Am Opposed to The Vietnam War" in which he condemned the war and the negative toll it was taking on domestic programs to combat poverty in the United States.
President Obama's supporters have argued that it wasn't possible to introduce legislation that would only specifically target the very poor when unemployment pushed towards 10% with millions of Americans looking for work.
The president said while this nation will continue military operations against enemies overseas, the country would also work to resolve disputes through diplomacy.
The president mentioned the need to ensure that no American would again stand on long line for hours waiting to vote, returning to an issue he feels strongly about and which he'd mentioned on the night of his re-election.
The president spoke about the need for comprehensive immigration reform: this is not surprising given how Republicans' hardline positions, including Romney's strange proposal for "voluntary deportations" backfired and cost him dearly among Latino voters. Romney won only 27% of the Latino vote compared to Obama's 67%. George W. Bush won 44% of the Latino vote in 2004.
The president mentioned Africa only in passing, when he said the U.S. would support democracy on the continent and in Asia, the Americas and Middle East "because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom."
The administration is still weighing how much emphasis to place on national security related issues -- given developments in Mali and the Central African Republic, where powerful insurgencies threatened the governments, and the Algerian hostage crisis. Critics contend that the U.S. often overplayed regional threats in order to justify deployment of soldiers on the continent: African countries have rejected a permanent base for AFRICOM on the continent. There are also reports that as conflict rages in North Africa the administration is considering deploying more drones in Africa.
On the other hand, the president recently took an active role on African affairs when he directly called Rwanda's president, Gen. Paul Kagame, to warn him against continued support for M23, which had caused widespread war crimes in Congo. Additionally, administration officials report that President Obama will travel to a few African countries with democratically elected governments this year.
The president specifically called for tolerance for members of the gay community --which is a historic first as presidential inauguration speeches go, saying "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."
The president spoke on the need to embrace alternative sources of energy to decrease the country's reliance on fossil fuel: He spoke of the need to take action against climate change and pointed to raging uncontrollable fires as evidence to those who still deny that industry impacts climate change. He was clearly referring to China, which has gained a head start in harnessing energy from nature, when he said, "We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise."
Obama noted that the U.S. was winding down military involvement overseas and that "lasting peace does not require perpetual war." The U.S. "strength of arms" needed to be balance with "rule of law" in this country, the president said.
Nevertheless, the administration has been criticized for domestic warrantless monitoring of American citizens, the broad powers of detentions without charges granted to the government, and disputed powers that grant the president has used to authorize targetng for drone attacks U.S. citizens overseas who are regarded as enemy combatants.