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Ron Radosh

What Was the Meaning of President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address?

January 21st, 2013 - 11:37 am

No sooner did President Barack Obama finish his second inaugural address than the liberal pundits proclaimed it to be a speech of unity on behalf of all Americans. Yes, it is a platitude, but all of us do pause to reaffirm the greatness of our republic, and to celebrate the election of a chief executive with whom many of us may disagree but who nevertheless represents our country as a whole and is entrusted by us to make the tough decisions that all our countrymen will have to live with. The speech, however, left much to be desired, and my first take is that it will not be one that many will remember in future years.

The president took generalities with which we all agree and used them to imply that to carry on in the American tradition, “progressive” measures favored by his base need to be implemented.

Take the enthusiastic response by liberal columnist Matthew Yglesias writing at Slate. According to Yglesias, the president’s speech was “not even slightly” anti-capitalist, but instead was a defense of economic liberalism tempered by a “robust welfare state and select government interventions in the economy.” Obama, he thinks, came off not as any kind of socialist or statist, but as a pragmatist in the American tradition who believes that fidelity to the Constitution demands a “pragmatic response to changing circumstances.”

Thus the president said in his speech that a “free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.” Echoing the progressivism of the age of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he emphasized that a “great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”

Few would disagree, including most conservatives. But the devil, of course, lies in the details.

The problem is well spelled out by William Voegeli, who in the current issue of National Review warns Americans about the coming Swedenization of America. He notes the difference between European social democracies and the United States and our welfare state:

Our deeply rooted, don’t-tread-on-me Jeffersonianism means that we cannot be persuaded to buy even a relatively modest welfare state unless a significant portion of the purchase is financed with debt. In this we are unlike the Europeans, who want cradle-to-grave welfare states with enough to pay cash for them.

[The welfare state] creates strong incentives for individuals to have fewer children of their own and rely instead on aggregated financial support from everyone’s children, thereby putting social-security systems under intolerable strain.

The social-democratic project, already sinking in Europe and Scandinavia, cannot work here. Yet, by implication — arguing that it is only a pragmatic adjustment for today to our Constitutional obligations — the president is subtly suggesting that our nation continue down a forlorn path.

After repeating the generally accepted view of self-reliance, individuality, and rejection of central authority, the president made it clear he believes “times change,” and we must too. We must respond to new challenges through “collective action.”

In one fell swoop, President Obama moved from giving lip service to free-market ideology (thereby fooling people like Matthew Yglesias) to arguing against those supposed conservatives — strawmen, really — who supposedly want to do away with Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and who, the president claims, argue that they “sap our initiative” rather than, as he would have it, “strengthen us.”

In making the case in that manner, the president did not address the real central issue: whether our nation and economy can sustain an ever-enlarging entitlement state based on an ever-growing deficit that will pass the burden on to our children and grandchildren. Instead, he made it appear that those he opposes want to end any sustenance for the poor, while he and his base want what is best for the poor and for all Americans.

It is, as Ygelesias claims, an “attempt to offer a thorough response to the pseudo-Randian ideology currently ascendant on the right.”

To a liberal like Yglesias, Ayn Rand is a perfect bogeyman to bring out to clamp down on those who seek to bring up the issue of the necessity of fiscal responsibility so that a true and reasonable safety net is preserved, rather than an ever-growing monolith that will end in collapse. By never dealing with specifics — and leaving that to his party faithful and his new activist campaign organization now made permanent — the president managed the perfect parlor trick of seeming to be ecumenical and non-partisan while in fact laying out the gauntlet for a very partisan push in the days to come.

The president spoke of seeking to support a “rising middle-class,” but referred as well to the injustice of the “shrinking few [who] do very well.” He implied that the way to achieve such goals is to implement measures that affect the wealth of the famous “one percent,” obviously through higher taxes that inevitably will fall upon the very middle class he seeks to help raise. They will inevitably be taxed at much higher rates once it becomes clear that taxes on the very rich have not helped solve our economic problems.

Lip service in one line about reducing the cost of health care and the “size of our deficit”: these reductions are not what the president will be seeking in his second term in office. Rather, it will be programs along the lines of what he began during his first term: cementing Obamacare, raising taxes on the “wealthy,” taking administrative measures to implement unpopular gun-control programs, drastically cutting the defense budget, and withdrawing from theaters of war in a manner that will risk the rise of our very real enemies abroad.

The president implied with his comments about climate change and “sustainable energy” that he will continue down the path of subsidies for green energy companies which have already proved to be a folly.

He pledged to “support democracy from Asia to Africa,” but what that means — when replacing a tyrant in Syria who he at first claimed was a reformer with the radical Islamist group that is likely to emerge with Assad’s defeat, as it is in Libya with Qaddafi now gone — is not addressed by reiteration of a meaningless pledge that we support democracy.

Some will warm to Obama’s call to “act in our time” and to not “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” But do we really expect those of our friends on the left to cease their name-calling, and to rationally debate the issues? Somehow, I think my skepticism on this point is well-taken.

As Democrats party tonight in our nation’s capital and Republicans leave town for a day’s retreat from the limelight, we all will soon face having to deal with the very real problems that at this moment remain to be solved. We move together as one people and nation, albeit one that is divided at the core, with half the nation favoring solutions that differ remarkably from those advocated by our commander-in-chief and his party’s base. Let us wish that President Obama, with the help of a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate, manages to move in such a way that we do not in the next four years slip farther away from our moorings.

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