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Left ahead

Politics | Partisan inaugural speech signals an aggressive liberal agenda for the president’s second term

WASHINGTON—Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell sounded a hopeful note after President Obama’s second inaugural address on Jan. 21, stating that Obama’s second term represents a fresh start for “dealing with the great challenges of our day … the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt.”

But little in the president’s speech suggested that dealing with those challenges is on the administration’s second-term agenda.

In the first 580 words, Obama uttered the word together seven times. But, in the midst of this plea for solidarity across party lines, Obama ignored his own advice. Launching into a partisan defense of liberal polices, Obama foreshadowed a second term that threatens to drive a bigger wedge between the divided lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

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Obama pledged to take on climate change. He became the first president to support gay rights in an inaugural speech. He drew battle lines on gun control, immigration, tax reform, and healthcare. He defended the entitlement programs that are adding to the massive national debt. He argued for putting aside the debate over the role of government and then proceeded to outline an array of expanded government initiatives.

In giving fiscal issues short shrift, Obama may have hoped to signal that spending debates are over. But fiscal deadlines are looming: On March 1 deep automatic spending cuts in defense and domestic programs kick in, while the authority to keep the government running expires on March 27.

This best reflects Washington’s disconnect. As the president makes unapologetic appeals to his liberal base on non-fiscal issues, Republicans keep pressing the nation’s urgent debt problem.

Obama spent one sentence calling for “hard choices” to reduce the size of the nation’s deficit. But he didn’t outline those choices and, with his next line, suggested entitlement reform would remain more rhetorical than actual. “We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” Obama said.

Such words are not encouraging to fiscal conservatives who see the nation’s debt at $16.4 trillion and counting (nearly $6 trillion more than when Obama first took office in 2009).

But acute observers did not need a candid speech to learn that Obama’s second-term liberal ambitions may look similar to his first term—but on steroids.

Four years ago Obama tapped a rival (Hillary Clinton) and a Republican (Robert Gates) for his cabinet. Today, Obama has appointed trusted insiders to his new cabinet, including former White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew as treasury secretary and former debate prep partner John Kerry as secretary of state.

When Obama announced an ambitious gun control agenda on Jan. 16, he included with his legislative proposal 23 executive orders that attempt to change the gun rules in the country while continuing his first-term preference for bypassing Congress.

But it was not Obama’s policy promotions that rang the loudest on inauguration day. Instead it was the reaction of the gathered crowd that launched into robust boos whenever a Republican appeared on the Jumbotrons placed throughout the crowd. They booed former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. They jeered former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

“I thought that was really sad,” said attendee and Obama supporter Lynetria Johnson, 41, from Tulsa, Okla. “[Obama] talked about us coming together and stopping this political infighting, and everybody was booing. It just shows the state of the country.”

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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