Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Progressive America: Reflections on Obama's Second Inaugural

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I'm really not sure how and to what extent President Obama will follow through on the progressive commitments he made in his Second Inaugural yeterday, but there's no denying that his vision was clear and that his rhetoric was in the right place.

Of course he has often been criticized by those of us on the left for not being enough of a man of the left, enough of a leader for progressive change, and deservedly so. Too often he has been a leader, or follower, of of the Beltway center, the compromiser willing to sell out core progressive principles for the sake of getting a deal done, too often willing to give in to an opposition that itself has no interest in working with him in good faith.

And yet there is hope as he embarks now on his second term.

And it is possible, just possible, that he will do for the left what Reagan did for the right, that he will indeed be, or at least try to be, the transformative figure many of us know he can be.

This was a speech of substance, unlike Bush Jr.'s second, which promised a global crusade but had nothing to back it up. It was a speech about America, about what America is -- what it was meant to be, what it has become, what it can be. It was a speech that proudly articulated a liberal-progressive understanding of America, and of America's promise, in stark contrast to the conservative view that has, in large part thanks to Reagan, come to dominate, and corrupt, the American politico-historical narrative.

This is America, the president said, a liberal America, a progressive America. A great deal has been accomplished in the face of steadfast, regressive opposition, and a lot remains to be done, but, yes, there is hope, hope grounded in the progressive vision of the Founders and in the accomplishments that have defined a nation.

As Greg Sargent wrote, in one of the best commentaries on the speech I read yesterday:

Obama's speech lacked signature lines and was more direct than soaring, but it was nonetheless enormously ambitious. It drew a direct line from language of the Founding Fathers straight through the great progressive presidents of the 20th Century, linking the founding language of liberty directly to the great debates of the present. Obama made the case for still more progress in the arena of civil rights — and for expanded progressive governance to combat inequality and protect our "citizens" from economic harm — by grounding it directly in the nation's founding values.


Obama quoted extensively from the Declaration, and declared that it is our challenge to "bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time." He then went on to make the case for robust government activism in the economy — precisely in order to preserve individual freedom, i.e., the ability to pursue happiness. He linked this to the need for more government investment in infrastructure and education. For rules designed to ensure fair market competition. For maintaining the social safety net (in the form of Social Security and Medicare, achieved by two great Democratic presidents). For the need for a greater push for equal pay for women and full equality for gay Americans (which Obama linked to the struggle for civil rights for African Americans by invoking Martin Luther King).


Obama's speech... was similar to Ronald Reagan's inaugural address in 1981. Reagan used that speech to articulate the conservative philosophy of governance and to declare the country’s turn in that direction. Obama today made the case, implicitly, that the country has now thrown in its lot with progressive governance as he defined it. Unlike Reagan, who made that declaration in his first inaugural, Obama needed to get through a tumultuous first term before having the confidence to do the same. Obama had to deal with profound domestic crises and was often rendered over-cautious by a radicalized opposition that was determined to destroy him at all costs...

Obama all but declared ideological victory. That was the hidden meaning of Obama's frequent invocation of "we, the people" — he was effectively rooting his vision of the proper balance of individual and collective responsibility, and the need for the sort of collective action the right all-too-cavalierly denounces as tyranny, in their authority.

But of course, however rousing the speech, however robust the vision, there isn't victory just because he says so. And while he is right, I think, about Progressive America, the other side will do everything in its power to stop him. (And Jon Chait is right that in many ways the success or failure of his second term will be up to the Republicans, and obviously they're aiming at failure.)

What I don't want is for this speech to be nothing more than an articulation of liberalism that ultimately goes nowhere. It would still have value as rhetoric, and in its vision of and for America, but that would be that.

But there is hope, even in today's Washington, even with the Republican Party being what it is, a party of right-wing extremism that seeks to crush progress in its tracks.

This is President Obama's moment in history. He just won re-election by a wide margin. The country is divided but he is popular and he proposes a political agenda that commands similar support.

It will take a fight, and it will take fortitude, but the time is now.

Forward, America. Forward to fulfill your promise.

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  • I predict the GOP will cook up a "scandal" to try to damage Obama in his 2nd term. It will be a Whitewater-like "scandal": endlessly investigated, but never reaching any sort of resolution. The GOP believes that if you constantly investigate something, then much of the public will believe "where there's smoke, there's fire." (I mean, how many people recall that no wrongdoing was ever uncovered in the Whitewater case?)
    I'm pretty sure the GOP will do this. It'll all be fanned along by the whole GOP propaganda apparatus of Drudge/talk radio/Fox News. The only question is whether the GOP will be able to get the mainstream media to take the bait.
    After snoozing for 8 years through numerous Bush era scandals like the Valerie Plame treason case, the MSM might well be ready to take the GOP's cue.

    By Blogger Marc McDonald, at 7:27 PM  

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