NASHVILLE, Ind. — A little over a week before the New York Times’ Page 1 banner headline would proclaim “Obama offers liberal vision: ‘We Must Act,’” there was an acknowledgement of sorts.
U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, a sophomore Republican, was asked if his 4th Congressional District constituents had come to grips with the likely fact that Barack Hussein Obama would be president for the next four years. Rokita responded, “I think my constituents understand. Who I hope understands is House Republican leadership. For my first years in Congress, we weren’t supposed to do anything too bold for fear of rocking the boat before the election and a chance to get a Republican president.
“Quite frankly,” Rokita said, “that time has come and gone. So we have nothing left but to be bold.”
It was a recognition that getting America back to work after the Bush wars and economic disaster took a back seat to the 2012 election, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stating the “top priority” was making Obama a “one-term president.”
What followed was an array of party-line votes, the rise of the tea party and threats to shut down the government and default on its debt. Republicans accused Obama of perpetrating the trillion-dollar deficits that were nearly identical to the costs of the military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq and forged by President George W. Bush.
Bush’s TARP rescue as well as fishing General Motors and Chrysler out of the liquid abyss were to become Obama’s millstones, as did his precarious stimulus program.
Obama ushered in his second term Monday with a defense of “collective action” and the role government, though he acknowledged the limits and “skepticism” of central authority.
The inaugural speech, coming on Martin Luther King Day, was a bow to his political coalition, but also an emergence of a second-term president looking beyond the wars, terror threats and economic collapse that defined much of his first term. Obama appeared to be taking a page from President Reagan, using this most conspicuous platform with the whole world watching to make his case to his coalition, vowing to wage the fight.
“Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free,” Obama said. “We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.”
Obama then cited instances where the federal government bound the nation, building railroads and Interstates. “Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune. Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.”
CNN analyst David Gergen called it one of Obama’s most important speeches, saying, “It’s a real declaration of principles. He was saying, ‘Let’s talk about what is essential.’”
Republicans fumed. Former Republican National Committeewoman Dee Dee Benkie of Indiana tweeted, “Very scary speech — get ready, he is going for the throat.”
Obama cited climate change and immigration, and also made the case that gay Americans deserve the same rights as others, cloaked into the Jeffersonian principles that “All men are created equal.”
He seemed to be responding to Mitt Romney, his opponent last fall, who suggested that 47 percent of Americans were “takers.” Obama said, “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
But New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks believes that Obama “misunderstands this moment.”
“The Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society laws were enacted when America was still a young and growing nation,” Brooks writes. “They were enacted in a nation that was vibrant, raw, underinstitutionalized and needed taming. We are no longer that nation. We are now a mature nation with an aging population. We are bogged down with a bloated political system, a tangled tax code, a byzantine legal code and a crushing debt.”
Obama barely mentioned entitlement reform and spending cuts as he launched into his final whirlwind.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com.