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.