President Obama’s second inaugural had soaring language but fell short of a transformational vision of the future.
Inaugural addresses are poetry and vision. They are not about governing and programs. Judged this way, President Obama’s second inaugural speech was wonderful poetry. The president excels at these big set pieces and he delivers them magnificently. In these moments he is magnetic, and it would take a very crabbed spirit not to acknowledge this. To quote Newt Gingrich, it was a good speech. But the vision of America in the speech is disappointing — not because it is wrong, but because it isn’t sufficiently penetrating and insightful. It is far too incomplete. It does not rise to the quality of his mind or of his poetry.
Some thoughts about the president’s speech itself before expanding on my concerns about the president’s vision:
The headline instant analysis of the speech all said this was a defiantly progressive statement. Maybe history will see it that way, but I doubt it. This was a very, very conventional restatement of progressive thought and values. It can only be thought of as some sort of signature statement because of how far toward the right debate in Washington shifted after the arrival of the Tea Party.
I’m not a “progressive” in today’s terms, but nevertheless I’d argue that the values the president emphasized have become conventional because they are right. And after a completely unedifying and at times ugly presidential campaign, and then a really dispiriting congressional lame duck session, some of these values needed to be reasserted. We do face problems requiring government and collective action, as the president discussed. The nation is not divided neatly into givers and takers as Governor Romney believes. Equal opportunity for every American ought not to be a question we debate. And even in the middle of a bitter immigration dispute about who are or can become Americans, we have to act decently. We ought to be able to resolve our immigration problem without seemingly taking delight in making good and decent men and women miserable, even if they are here “illegally.”
I even found the president’s statement of support for Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security completely traditional and unexceptional. The statement that “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us” is hardly a call to the barricades. Who out there expected the president, after winning a second term, to say anything differently? Who put the odds very high above zero that the president would suddenly acknowledge that Paul Ryan was right after all?
And I’m delighted that the president finally returned to climate change — although it is very, very late. I’ll acknowledge a high degree of self-interest here. I chair Resources for the Future, a 65-year-old economic think tank that is one of the world’s leading centers of thought on climate, energy, and the environment. I believe there are more and less effective ways to approach climate and environmental issues, but I think the problems are real and have to be addressed. It is depressing that much of the Republican Party — once again never missing a chance to miss a chance — has decided, immediately after the president’s speech, that the whole climate issue is a ruse, part of a deviously clever plot by the president to expand the regulatory state. I guess I’m glad for the human species that there are climate deniers like Holman Jenkins and George Will who are so awesomely smart that with 1,000 words and a few anecdotes they can disprove a quarter century of climate science. But I don’t take a word of any of this as serious commentary. Since we are, right now, trashing the planet, I hope forging a long-term creative approach to this central question is how the president chooses to be transformational.
But this brings me to the incompleteness of the president’s vision. America is a great deal more — and is entering times more challenging — than today’s conventional progressive vision suggests or the president said in his speech. I’d underline three subjects the president left out: change, business and economic growth, and our decentralized society.
To start with, we are facing immense simultaneous changes in our economy, the world economy, technology, the diversity of our population, the nature of work, and our environment. Any vision you choose to have about America has to be put in the context of these changes.
But we are experiencing a very low rate of economic growth, and we cannot cope with these big changes unless our economic growth rate rises. The only way that can really happen is through business and the private sector. We have the most dynamic and innovative private sector in the world. Unless it stays that way, as a nation we won’t be able to afford all of that collective action the president wants. However, the president never mentions the private sector and it seems conspicuously excluded from his insistence that we have to work together. To have the only mention of the private sector focus exclusively on rules and regulations just isn’t remotely appropriate.
More broadly, we have the richest and most diverse civil society in the world, strong state and local governments, and an ethos that is insistently individualistic and decentralized. These are mostly strengths. Big government and big companies really do have a strong tendency to take all of the air out of the room, to homogenize everything, and to relentlessly oppose innovation and change. It is our decentralization and diversity that makes us a uniquely dynamic nation.
We are a very complicated mosaic and much more of it should be celebrated than the president chose to in his speech. I wish he had put his insistence on the timeless quality of the values he underlined in the context both of the need to retain the dynamism of American society and the American economy and in the context of the immense changes we are facing. How to keep these values fresh in the midst of the changes we have to navigate — that’s a topic made for a second inaugural.
Finally, a brief specific point. The president said, “[W]e 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.” Great. But that’s exactly the choice we are making now, and there is no sign we are changing. Our national government is already mostly about defense, transfer payments to the elderly, and the cost of our (growing) debt. On current trends we will spend all of our tax revenues on those three functions in the year 2020. And the president’s speech was decidedly lukewarm about resolving the state of our fiscal health. If I were in the generation that “will build America’s future,” I’d be gratified by the sentiment and all, but I’d worry a lot more about the numbers.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.