Obama’s Inaugural Speech Was Bold, but Following Through Won’t Be Easy

Post-partisanship proved a mirage in his first term, and it's unlikely Obama's re-election will "break the fever" on the right.

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Rob Carr / Pool / Reuters

President Barack Obama gives his Inauguration Address after being sworn in at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 21, 2013.

It seems like a very long time ago, but try to remember the hopeful spirit of bipartisanship around the time of Barack Obama’s first Inauguration. The 2008 election had been filled with talk of a new, postpartisan politics, driven in part by “Obama Republicans” from Wall Street to the military. On the night of his first swearing-in, Obama held dinners to honor his defeated GOP opponent, John McCain, and the Republican general Colin Powell. He would later dine with a group of conservative columnists. His first Inaugural Address seemed to endorse the theory that his election represented a transformation of American politics: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply,” Obama said.

Alas, the cynics were largely right. Obama made several first-term efforts to negotiate with Republicans, but they all failed. Republicans dug in against the new President, and it became clear, particularly after the 2011 debt-limit showdown, that the GOP’s militant right wing had no interest in compromise. (Many Republicans maintain that Obama never bargained with them in good faith.)

(MORE: What You Missed While Not Watching Yesterday’s Presidential Inauguration)

After months of hewing to the image of a conciliator, Obama finally learned his lesson — and went on the attack. In a pivotal December 2011 speech in Osawatomie, Kans., he linked Republicans to a spirit of “breathtaking greed” and a “you’re on your own” economic philosophy. In April 2012 he attacked the “radical vision” and “social Darwinism” of Paul Ryan’s budget plan. His 2012 campaign was less about building bipartisan bridges than barricading the middle class from the GOP’s social and economic agenda.

With his second Inaugural Address, Obama has replaced his olive branch with a hot poker. He reiterated his campaign themes of equality and fairness, casting himself as a defender of regular Americans against Republican budget cutters and the wealthy interests they serve. “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” he said. “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” He gave unprecedented attention to gay rights (“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law”).  And he signaled that addressing climate change — a condition whose existence many conservatives simply deny — will be a main priority of his second term.

(VIDEO: Obama’s Speech, in 180 Seconds)

Liberals were delighted by Obama’s speech. But they should be careful about developing a giddy new round of expectations. Just as postpartisanship proved a mirage in the first term, Obama’s suggestion in this past campaign that his re-election would “break [the] fever” on the right and induce Republicans to cooperate with him is looking overly optimistic. Leveraging its control of the House and using the filibuster to slow legislation in the Senate, the GOP fought Obama to the brink of the Jan. 1 fiscal cliff and pushed him back from his pledge to raise taxes on Americans making more than $250,000 a year. (Rates will now go up for individuals making $400,000 or more.) And although Republicans have backed down from their game of chicken over the debt ceiling, that appears to be a short-term tactical retreat in the larger budget war. Meanwhile, Republicans are showing no sign of joining Obama’s call to tighten gun-control laws. And if the GOP cooperates on another one of Obama’s chief second-term priorities — immigration reform — it will be a function of the party’s existential panic, not the breaking of a partisan fever.

And climate change? The good news for Obama is that public opinion, after turning against government action to slow global warming, has shifted back in the activists’ favor. But Republicans (along with many coal-country Democrats) remain uninterested in defying Big Business on the issue. Obama will probably have to resort to aggressive Executive action, including a crackdown on existing power-plant emissions. It’s not clear, however, whether that sort of unilateral action would be enough to make a real difference.

Ultimately, Obama’s speech won’t really shift the Washington political dynamic. It was more a reflection of the fact that postpartisanship is dead and buried, with no evident hope of resurrection. Even with his re-election behind him, Obama has resigned himself to nonstop partisan combat. And while his supporters may hope for some kind of tide-turning Normandy landing, it’s just as likely that the future holds more Western-front-style trench warfare. But who wants to hear about that on Inauguration Day?

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