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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Obama Era

(PHOTO: Our view of President Barack Obama at the 57th Presidential Inauguration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on January 21, 2013. Picture courtesy Molly Allen.) 

      President Abraham Lincoln delivered arguably the greatest and most memorable Inaugural address of all time on March 4, 1865, when he was sworn in for a second term as the country's chief executive in the waning days of the Civil War. The central components of the speech that made it a particularly effective address were both its content -- "with malice toward none and charity for all" -- and its succinctness. In other words, it was "short but sweet." Certainly, the address was more memorable than Lincoln's 1861 Inaugural speech. 140 years later, President George W. Bush also delivered a second Inaugural address more memorable than his first address. True, Bush's 2005 address was rightfully criticized by Matt Yglesias as "unhinged hubris," the delivery was not very good, and some of its content is retrospectively ironic (the grandiose dream of creating an "ownership society" was quickly undone by the financial crisis and economic recession that hit late in Bush's second term). However, the speech's Wilsonian themes of promoting American democratic values abroad and exporting the virtues of liberty and freedoms of speech, religion, and press made it a compelling address.

Prior to last Monday's Inaugural ceremony, there was much made about the fact that President Barack Obama's second inauguration would be not as historic, moving, or memorable as his first inauguration. In 2009, he was supposed to give the most eloquent address in our time and he fell short. In 2013, expectations were not high. On Monday, President Obama shattered the expectations of conventional wisdom, as is often the case. He delivered an Inaugural address that was more memorable than his first, more compelling and eloquent than his first, and one that will come to define the era in which we find ourselves: the Obama Era. In many ways, this new era - one marked by a progressive trajectory in American politics led and defined by President Obama and his millions of supporters - is a rejection and correction of the excesses of the Reagan Era.

For the last three decades, American politics has been defined by Reaganism and the conservative political ideology of President Reagan. The 30 years following his landslide 1980 presidential victory, a realigning election, are essentially regarded as the Reagan Era. Through Reagan's presidency, the tenures of the Bushes, and even, to a lesser extent, during the Clinton years, the federal government operated from a Reaganite vision. Our government instituted sweeping deregulation of the financial industry, enacted huge tax cuts that - for the most part - heavily favored the wealthy, significantly boosted defense spending, embraced devolution, and rolled back elements of the social safety net. Our national political culture has been defined by Reagan as well. For several election cycles, it has been unfathomable for a presidential candidate to campaign on raising taxes and even Democratic President Bill Clinton proudly ran on *not* being a "tax-and-spend Democrat." In fact, it was Clinton who declared in his 1996 State of the Union address, "the era of big government is over." The Democratic Party moved to the center, embracing Reagan-cherished policies like welfare reform, a decades-long conservative dream signed into law by Clinton. The Republican Party - once dominated by the likes of liberal GOP Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and moderate Pennsylvania Governor Bill Scranton - adopted Reagan's belief in low tax rates for the rich, embraced his penchant for large defense budgets, and became determined to gut elements of the Great Society and the New Deal, which Reagan once claimed had roots in "fascism." They won elections based on these promises as the country embarked on a conservative trajectory post-Reagan. Thanks to an extensive legacy project heralded by anti-tax stalwart Grover Norquist, Reagan is also the namesake of literally thousands of pieces of public property, including the Washington National Airport. (Of course, the GOP conveniently ignored Reagan's protectionism, support of the assault weapons ban, enactment of numerous modest tax increases, and granting of amnesty to three million undocumented immigrants.) The Reagan Era marked our politics for at least three decades. 

Though much is still uncertain, it is increasingly clear that we are now in the Obama Era. This time is one shaped by a progressive trajectory reflected in two developments. For one, new domestic public policy (i.e. Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the Don't Ask/Don't Tell repeal) has used the instruments of government to promote the common good, constructively improve peoples' lives, and further social progress. Secondly, the American public has become more supportive of these changes and receptive to progressive causes thanks in part to a new majority governing coalition that elected Barack Obama twice. President Obama's inaugural address symbolized the advent of this era. His powerful speech was both a full-throated defense of his achievements and agenda ("a decade of war is ending, an economic recovery has begun") and a progressive clarion call ("we must do these things together"). In fact, it was an eloquent and proud articulation of the core principles of modern American liberalism.  Constantly returning to the overarching theme of "we the people," the President championed the notion that "together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure fair play." The new national consumer protection agency, created by Obama's Wall Street reform law, has been doing just that, enacting tough new rules that have restrained the excesses of banks, mortgage lenders, and debt relief services. "A great nation," Obama proclaimed, "must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortunes." He further pleased progressives by surprisingly bluntly declaring, "we will respond to the threat of climate change." This view of an activist government can be traced back to the thinking that fueled the foundations of the American progressive movement of the early 20th century. Last Monday, Obama gave voice to that core belief of progressivism. The proud defense of a proactive government was also seen in Obama's declaration that "preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action." In fact, the President even made an explicit reference to three specific domestic federal programs - Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - as commitments to each other that "enable us to take the risks that make our nation great." Surely, Obama would like to be remembered in the same vein as FDR and LBJ - a Democratic president who broadened America's commitment to social justice and economic fairness.

Obama's embrace of progressivism was further, and perhaps more notably, reflected in his telling of the story of America as a story of individuals and mass movements rising up to successfully demand equal treatment under the law. In telling this story, Obama was able to constantly return to one of the themes of his address: that our history is a tale of constant struggle to truly up live up to the creed that "all men are created equal." Obama's address included gay and lesbian Americans as part of this history.  The first sitting president to publicly endorse same-sex marriage became the first to utter the word "gay" in an Inaugural address. Even eight years ago, it was unthinkable that gay rights would get any such mention on that kind of a national platform. By linking the gay rights movement to previous equal rights struggles ("from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall"), Obama asserted that the recent struggles and successes of the LGBT movement are part of the great American tradition of continual social progress. Clearly, Obama is aware that he is likely to go down in history as the president who facilitated, and led to some extent, the expansion of gay rights.

At some point in the first term, President Obama made the choice to be remembered not as a president who fixed the ills that plagued Washington politics - in that task he set for himself in his previous inaugural address, he (to his own admission) failed. Instead, he chose to be remembered as a president who put the country on a progressive trajectory. An article entitled 'Why Barack Obama Will Be a More Effective Liberal' in The Atlantic put it best last November: Obama decided he wanted to "change America" instead of "change Washington." So far, he has succeeded in the former, bringing about sweeping changes in our health insurance system, Wall Street regulatory framework, military policy towards LGBT Americans, student loan system, and national service programs, to name a few. America has come along with him for the journey. New public opinion polls find that a majority of Americans agreed with Obama's ending of the Iraq war, his recent tax hike on the wealthy, his proposal of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, his desire to end the Afghanistan war, his gun control proposals, and his Inaugural plea to preserve Social Security. As Barack Obama changed during the course of his presidency, so did America. To quote Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast, Obama will likely become "the Democrats' Reagan" - a president who fundamentally reshaped the trajectory of American politics and our political culture. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer even declared on Monday that "Reaganism is dead." As the conservative dominance of our political culture subsides, we find ourselves in a new time: the Obama Era.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Obama's America

(PHOTO: CSPAN - President Barack Obama takes the oath of office, administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, for a second term in the White House Blue Room on January 20, 2013.)
  In 1990, Barack Obama was still trying to find his place in the world and come to grips with his complicated identity. He came closer than ever before to finding himself that year. The young son of a white Kansan mother, once on food stamps, and an estranged Kenyan father rose to prominence as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. Talk of a political career was scant but it existed to the extent that the young Obama told Time magazine that he was interested in pursuing a career in elected office. Were he to pursue elected office, Obama made clear at the time what his vision was for the country. "We're going to reshape America," Obama said to the Illinois Daily Herald, "in a way that is...more generous." More than two decades later, the Harvard Law Review editor is strikingly close to seeing that vision fulfilled.

On Monday, Barack Hussein Obama will take the ceremonial oath of office for a second time as the 44th President of the United States and much will be made of the fact that he is greyer, older, and sterner this time. This analysis, based solely on trivial personal traits, should be less relevant than the fact that this time, he will be sworn in as a more accomplished leader as well. It is true that Obama notably failed, to his own admission, in fulfilling his signature 2009 inaugural task of changing the culture of Washington and overcoming "petty partisanship." There is a myriad of reasons for this failure (though the blame largely lies with an increasingly recalcitrant -- and increasingly powerful -- right wing faction of Congress that has been devoted from day one to defeating the President's agenda). As significant legislative achievements accumulated (the Lily Ledbetter Act, the Recovery Act, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, etc.) and the GOP opposition hardened ("You lie"), it became clear that the Obama presidency would not fulfill that '09 Inauguration promise. Instead, it would achieve a different vision. That would be the dream to make America a "more generous" nation -- the goal a young and idealistic Barack Obama set when he first considered going into politics. As President Obama enters his second term, he takes the oath as a more accomplished man presiding over an America that is becoming, indeed, more generous.

The evidence of this progressive trajectory for our nation is clear. The proof is in the pudding. Gone is the somber time of 700,000 jobs being lost per month, an entire industry in shambles, and an economy on the brink of the second Great Depression. In its place is nearly three consecutive years of private sector job growth, a successful rescue of our storied auto industry, and historic investments in roads and bridges, high-speed rail, and alternative energy. Gone is a health care system that discriminated against women, Americans with preexisting conditions, and young Americans. In its place is the first kind of national health insurance safety net in our country's history -- a historic reform that expands Medicaid to 133 percent of the federal poverty level and provides enormous tax credits for middle-class families to purchase health insurance, among other provisions. Gone is an unchecked Wall Street run totally amok without any comprehensive protections for working Americans. In its place is the first ever federal consumer protection agency -- a bureau that has already returned hundreds of millions of dollars to customers wronged by Discover and Capitol One -- and FDIC regulation of infamously risky trading for the first time. Gone is a military policy that discriminated against and ousted gay and lesbian soldiers solely because of their sexual orientation. In its place is a military, still the finest in the world, where you do not have to lie about who you love to serve your country. Gone is a student loan system where banks were able to reap massive profits at the expense of college students seeking aid to go to school. In its place is the elimination of banks as the middlemen in this process and a system friendlier and more altruistic for millions of American middle class students and their families. Gone too is the evil mastermind of the worst terrorist attack on our country's soil, gone is a war in Iraq that we should never have begun, and gone is a dictator in Libya responsible for the deaths of Americans and the brutal repression of his own citizens.

A large bulk of these achievements were largely accomplished without bipartisan fanfare, without Republican votes in the case of domestic legislation, and without fulfilling the President's promise to bridge the gap that divided America's two major political parties. Nevertheless, these achievements are truly significant, consequential in the lasting effect that they will have on the next several generations of Americans who will feel the real world impact of a reformed health care system, stronger consumer protections, and other aspects of the Obama legacy. When Barack Obama is sworn in for a second term in front of a crowd of 800,000 people, including me, in the cold of Washington -- keep in mind, as a Chicago community organizer, his crowds were often as small as *13* people -- his Inaugural address should not be a rehashing of his promise of restoring bipartisanship. That admirable but unrealistic hope of early 2009 has largely vanished. Instead, his address should focus on what his presidency is shaping up to be: the realization of a "more generous" America. It is what President Obama set his sights on achieving in 1990, it is what the story of his presidency has been thus far, and it should be the focus of his second Inaugural address. Perhaps he could use some pointers from his fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln, who in his stirring second Inaugural in 1865, proclaimed, "with malice toward none and charity for all." Here's to creating a society that lives up to that promise. Best wishes, Mr. President.