Tuesday, January 22, 2013


First Thoughts: An emboldened Obama

Tuesday, 22 January 2013 06:16:16 PST
An emboldened Obama… The liberal Reagan?... But can Obama get a third term (George H.W. Bush’s) like Reagan did?... Obama’s striking comments (and shift) on gay marriage… His striking comments on climate change… The potential for overreach?... 
*** An emboldened Obama: Since becoming a national political figure eight years ago, Barack Obama has often cast himself as someone trying to transcend petty and dogmatic politics. “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he said at the 2004 Democratic convention. “There is the United States of America.” And at his first inauguration four years ago, President Obama said, “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” But chastened by the last four years and emboldened by his decisive re-election in November, Obama yesterday discarded that image of post-partisanship and instead called for action -- which was unmistakably on the liberal side. “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time,” he said in his second inaugural address. More than anything else, it was an unabashed defense of liberalism/progressivism.
*** The liberal Reagan? Indeed, back in 2008, Obama said he viewed a successful presidency as one that changed the trajectory of American politics. "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not,” he said. And another way to interpret Obama’s inaugural address was as a declaration that politics has been transformed -- on the role of government, on gay rights, and on war. As a result, commentators across the ideological spectrum (Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat, Matthew Continetti) compared Obama’s speech yesterday, and his presidency, to a liberal Reagan. But remember this about Reagan: The reason he has able to change the trajectory of American politics is that he essentially received a third term (George H.W. Bush’s), which not only resulted in more Supreme Court nominees and government appointments, but which also broke the opposition party. In other words, it made the opposition rethink its entire ideology. After all, those three GOP terms later resulted in Bill Clinton’s centrist presidency that cemented conservative politics (welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, the era of big government is over). Similarly, it was the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses that cemented the New Deal and Great Society. So can Obama get a third or fourth term? That’s what 2016 will be about. If Democrats do get that third term, the GOP will be forced to rethink its ideology.
*** Obama’s striking comments (and shift) on gay rights: Maybe the most striking (and memorable) lines of Obama’s inaugural speech were his remarks on gay rights. “‘All of us are created equal’ is the star that guides us still -- just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” he said. He later added, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” It’s important to remember that Obama was someone who opposed gay marriage in presidential run in ’08, and who later said he was evolving on the subject. Obama’s shift is a reflection of how quickly the politics of gay marriage have changed in this country. (The train was leaving the station, and Obama jumped on board.) And so is the fact that there has been little to no backlash to those remarks -- at least so far.
*** And his striking comments on climate change: What also struck us about yesterday’s speech was his call to action on climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” The line was striking because climate change isn’t viewed as a top-shelf priority for Obama’s second term (compared with gun control, immigration, and the fiscal situation). Yes, Obama did mention the topic at his 2012 Democratic convention address. (“Climate change is not a hoax,” he said. “More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke.”) But he didn’t say those two words of “climate change” during his 2012 victory speech. And his administration abandoned the cap-and-trade legislation on energy once it was clear it couldn’t pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. Question: Does this mean we should expect a more serious policy proposal on climate change in Obama’s State of the Union next month?
*** The potential for overreach? Given this emboldened Obama and given these calls for action on gay rights and climate change, the Washington Post’s Dan Balz writes that there’s a potential risk for Obama: overreach. “Obama risks overreaching or over-interpreting his mandate, which can be an affliction of newly reelected presidents. His victory in November was decisive but not overwhelming. Self-confidence can slip over the line to arrogance or hubris. Second terms often disappoint. So there are dangers ahead for the president.” Also, as ambitious as Obama’s vision was yesterday, little else is going to happen until the fiscal/budget impasse is broken.

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