Obama wants to complete the Great Society project of such progressive forefathers as both Roosevelts and Lyndon Johnson, and make it sustainable in an America that faces unprecedented global competition.
Mr Obama's inaugural speech, delivered this morning beneath a bright, chilly Washington sky, offered a remarkably stark answer. He plans to confront Republicans, co-opt their most cherished beliefs about American exceptionalism and individualism, gays, the young, immigrants and environmentalists.
Though the speech rang with references to
national unity, the founding fathers and the ties that bind Americans,
it was a deeply partisan piece of work. In his second term, Mr Obama's
big tent will be held up by Democratic ropes and stays. Those who insist
on remaining outside, it was easy to conclude, risk feeling very cold
indeed. The sight of the president on giant screens down the National
Mall sent up a roar from the crowd that made hair stand on end. Mr Obama
took that applause, and sought to harness it. Inauguration speeches are
often hailed as moments to reach across partisan divides, and make
peace after the bruising fights of the election just ended.
At the very start of his inaugural address, he offered a definition of what it means to be American: an allegiance to the idea of equal creation and unalienable rights articulated in the opening lines of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. It was hard not to hear a direct challenge to the argument set out by Mitt Romney, his vanquished Republican foe, and the Republicans' vice-presidential running-mate, Paul Ryan. It was Mr Ryan who, on the day that he joined the presidential ticket, galvanised American conservatives with his declaration that America was unique in being a country "founded on an idea", namely that:
Our rights come from nature and God, not government. We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. This idea is founded on the principles of liberty, freedom, free enterprise, self-determination and government by consent of the governed
president bowed to core conservative beliefs about American exceptional
ism, conceding that he governs a people skeptical of central authority,
disdainful of the "fiction" that society's ills can be cured by
government alone, and unusually insistent that it is an American's duty
to seek success through hard work, personal responsibility and a dose of
He went on to list some concrete consequences that flow from his vision of a communal action as an enabler of American individualism. In a canter through big agenda items for his second term, that will be spelled out in more detail in his February state-of-the-union address, Mr Obama talked of action on climate change (chiding those who "still deny the overwhelming judgment of science" on global warming) and action to make America a leader in sustainable energy production. He committed himself to seeking diplomatic solutions to security crises, and ran through a veritable to-do list of Democratic ambitions, from equal pay for women to gay equality, comprehensive immigration reform and (through a coy reference to Newtown in Connecticut) to action on gun violence. Mr Obama was directly challenging the core beliefs of today's Republican Party. Even that throwaway mention of those receiving help from government not being "takers" was a swipe at Mr Romney and his secretly-recorded comments about the Democratic base being the 47% of the population who pay no federal income taxes (and who are thus "takers", in the jargon of the American right, leeching on the nation's hard-working "makers"). From the backhand slap for climate-change deniers, to the rebuke of "absolutism", Mr Obama was attacking congressional Republicans, notably in the House of Representatives, and their entire conception of their role in a divided government. He gave Republicans almost no ground, making the briefest of references to their defining concern, the nation's deficit spending.
Perhaps confrontation will prove to be a fruitful strategy. Mr Obama's supporters would point to his first term, and the serial obstructionism of Republicans in Congress, and argue that the president has no choice but to come out fighting, as he seeks to achieve anything in his final few years in office. It was great to see Mr Obama sketch out his vision of how individualism and American risk-taking need a progressive safety net to thrive. That will be a potent argument for Democrats to promote in future elections, as they seek to occupy the centre ground of politics and corral Republicans on the political fringes.
In : Business