The Subtext of Obama’s Speech: My Critics Are Un-American Reactionaries!

Obama's second inaugural address was another attempt to sow division within the GOP

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Spectators fill the National Mall to watch President Barack Obama's ceremonial swearing-in on Jan. 21, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

President Obama’s second inaugural address is being hailed (and attacked) as the most progressive speech he’s ever given, a full-throated game changer that suggests an aggressive new vision for his second term. I don’t know. I thought it was kind of boring. It seemed like a rehash of his we’re-all-in-this-together campaign themes, with some familiar shots at you’re-on-your-own Republicans. Then again, I’ve always been less impressed than most by Obama’s words — I thought his 2012 convention speech was a dud too — and more impressed than most by his deeds.

I saw the speech as an extension of Obama’s divide-and-conquer legislative strategy, trying to break pragmatic Republicans — the kind who understand that “we cannot mistake absolutism for principle” — away from rejectionist Tea Partiers. The President repeatedly described a broad national consensus, then repeatedly claimed that his harshest critics are outside it: antigovernment extremists who don’t want to build railroads, educate children or protect the vulnerable; reactionaries who “still deny the overwhelming judgment of science” regarding climate change; neocons who don’t understand that “enduring peace and lasting security do not require perpetual war.”

He also implied that Republicans pushing for deep cuts in entitlements during the current round of fiscal negotiations are so far out of the mainstream they believe “that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.” Here he is twisting the knife:

We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. 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.

I thought that was a clever way to trash Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and other Republicans who see half their fellow Americans as lollygaggers. The subtext was: My critics are reactionary extremists! I happen to agree, but I don’t see what’s so statesmanlike or visionary about saying so in a speech billed as a homily about common ground. Obviously, Obama wants reality-based Republicans to abandon the dead-enders; that’s what happened on the fiscal-cliff deal, which got Obama just about everything he wanted, as well as the relief bill for Hurricane Sandy victims. But equating opposition to Obama’s policies with nostalgia for an America where “parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn” might not be the best way to sow that kind of division in the GOP.

In any case, Obama has governed as a left-of-center pragmatist, and I see no evidence from his rhetoric that he intends a different approach in his second term. He did make a strong pitch for climate action, but he did that in his first inaugural too, and then he followed up with strong climate action. He did make a strong pitch for gay marriage, but he’s been doing that for the past year. Anyone who thinks that Obama never talks about alleviating poverty or training science teachers or building research labs or reducing inequality or pushing equal pay for equal work has never heard Obama talk.

“We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial,” he said. That’s classic Obama. He’s not an Ivory-soap liberal. He’s a guy who gets things done. His progressive rhetoric doesn’t impress me, but he’s making a lot of progress.