Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Radical Inaugural Speech

President Obama, long reviled by the left as a trimmer and the right as a socialist, delivered one of his most impassioned and liberal speeches at the inaugural, a fiery exhortation that sought to shift the cultural ground of America. He made explicit what has always been implicit in his improbable odyssey—his drive to unite America around a new credo of unification, based, in part, on a conception of the federal government itself as a unifying force to foster independent drive and initiative. It was an ambitious vision of a liberal and liberalizing and exceptional America. Obama sounded like Reagan even as he repudiated his disdain for big government. In his radical speech, Obama flung down the gauntlet to the Republican Party, defying it to defy him.

Nor did the radicalism end there. It was in foreign affairs that Obama staked out the most temerarious new ground. He made it clear that he was dispensing, more or less, with the George W. Bush era. For all his evocation of American exceptionalism, Obama essentially denied it in foreign policy. He made it clear that there will be no precipitous attack against Iran, a country that he did not even bother to mention in his speech. Instead, Obama enunciated that the age of warfare that has tormented America for the past decade will come to an end. His lodestar will be diplomacy. Liberal hawks and neocons alike will be disconsolate. The Washington Post editorial page is already decrying Obama for engaging in "wishful thinking abroad." Even "a barrelful" of it. My, my, my. Are matters really so dire? "America's adversaries," we are told, "are not in retreat; they will be watching Mr. Obama in his second term to see if the same can be said of the United States."

Maybe so. But there is a distinction between prudence—between husbanding resources and using them strategically—and promiscuous intervention abroad. Is Mali worth a fight or would it boomerang? Should America become directly involved in the Syrian civil war? What are the consequences of bombing Iran? Obama is not an isolationist. But he has no appetite for embarking upon new land wars in the Middle East in either Syria or Iran. He may also choose to pursue a more detached relationship with Israel. The results of the Israeli election today may well occasion more disquiet in the White House.

But will Obama's approach in domestic and foreign affairs be vindicated in the next four years? Scandals or an unexpected war could completely derail his presidency. His second term could lead to greatness or utter disaster, and the record of second term presidencies has been a shaky one at best. National Interest editor Robert Merry observes that Obama's biggest challenge will be reducing the federal budget deficit and entitlements over the next four years. In his speech Obama elided this problem by declaring that he would protect the elderly, the poor, and children. But there is an inevitable collision between entitlements and protecting the economy to promote greater economic growth. Perhaps Obama will elucidate his stance on the budget more clearly in his upcoming State of the Union speech. For now, he has made it clear, however, that he is in a fighting mood. The GOP has been warned. If it wants to pursue a different path, it will have to outline one rather than simply engage in noisy obstructionism. The GOP has already been caught flatfooted on taxes and on raising the debt ceiling.

But Obama, too, will have to perform a partial U-turn. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus says,

At some point, Obama is likely to need willing collaborators from the opposition—if he hopes to pass an immigration reform law, for example, or negotiate a long-term deal to reduce the deficit.

When that day comes, the president may find himself wishing he had devoted a few more words of his second inaugural address to offering an outstretched hand.

That day is coming soon.

Image: Flickr/Glyn Lowe Photoworks. CC BY 2.0.