It didn’t take long for congressional Republicans to start complaining about President Obama’s second inaugural. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, “I didn’t hear any conciliatory remarks,” as if it’s incumbent on a re-elected president to pacify those who tried to defeat him. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) all made similar comments.
And wouldn’t you know it, a variety of pundits from the D.C. establishment soon followed in the same vein. National Journal’s Ron Fournier said Obama had been “fiercely partisan” and paid no mind to the “delicate art of compromise.” Michael Gerson, perhaps listening to a different speech altogether, heard a president argue “even the most commonplace policy disagreements indicate the bad faith of his opponents.”
Dana Milbank seems terribly disappointed that the president could have presented a “unifying” message, but didn’t.
What followed was less an inaugural address for the ages than a leftover campaign speech combined with an early draft of the State of the Union address. Obama used the most visible platform any president has to decry global-warming skeptics who “still deny the overwhelming judgment of science.” He quarreled with Republicans who say entitlement programs “make us a nation of takers.” He condemned the foreign policy of his predecessor by saying that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” the president informed his opponents.
For some reason, Milbank even complained about Obama having “mocked” the song “America the Beautiful” in an ad last July – though that’s not what happened.
Taken together, it seems many pundits and Republicans agree: Obama should be nice and bipartisan, reaching out to the right at all times, careful not to upset delicate sensibilities. Since his inaugural address didn’t do this, it somehow came up short.
Indeed, this seems to be a strain of thought that’s dominated much of the political discourse in recent weeks. How dare Obama nominate a Republican Defense Secretary he knows Republicans don’t like! How dare the president present an ambitious agenda to prevent gun violence over the objections of his critics! How dare Obama use his inaugural address to present an unapologetic vision of progressive governance in the 21st century!
Who does this guy think he is, the newly re-elected president of the United States?
The hand-wringing is unpersuasive, to put it mildly. Obama used his second inaugural address to offer a forceful defense of collective action and a governmental role in problem solving, which might make Republican senators and some media figures uncomfortable, but it’s hardly unprecedented – as E.J. Dionne reminds us, plenty of iconic presidents used their inaugural speeches to present a set of principles that guide their approach to policymaking. That Obama did the same need not be considered controversial.
As for the notion that the speech lacked a “unifying” theme, I hope some of his critics will consider going back and looking at it again. The president used the word “together” seven times. He used the phrase “We, the people” five times. He stressed “you and I as citizens” twice.
This is, by definition, a message intended to unify. Obama’s detractors will say, “Yes, but it’s about unifying around an agenda the president likes.” And my response is, of course it is. He’s the president, hoping to persuade people to follow his lead. That was the point.
As for the notion that Obama should have been most “post-partisan” and made his address more Republican-friendly, I sincerely hope we’re not going to let the last four years slip down the memory hole too quickly. As we discussed yesterday, Republicans spent Obama’s first term on a scorched-earth campaign, hoping to destroy his presidency and nearly everything he proposed. GOP leaders met privately exactly four years ago yesterday to plot their comeback by obstructing the president wherever possible, and refusing to compromise with Obama on literally anything, even when he embraced Republican ideas – and then they executed that plot without hesitation or shame.
That the president has learned lessons from those experiences isn’t a shame; it’s a relief.