By Michael Califra
A generation ago on January 20th, 1981, with the longest period of shared economic prosperity in US history mired in “stagflation”, Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as the nation’s 40th president. In his inaugural address he left no doubt where he placed the blame for the nation’s woes, proclaiming that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
That sentiment has ruled our national politics ever since. Even Bill Clinton, who famously “triangulated” his politics, often co-opting Republican policies in an effort to make his agenda more acceptable to what had been universally proclaimed by pundits as a “center-right country”, declared in his 1996 State of the Union address that ‘The era of big government is over.’
Not until January 21st, 2013, did the era of railing against government came to an end with President Obama’s second inaugural address.
The speech, in all its components parts, was the first unabashed defense of activist government and American liberal values by a US president in nearly 50 years. It was also a formal acknowledgement that the nation’s rapidly changing demographics are pushing the country to the left of the political spectrum. Not only do the political dictums of the last generation no longer apply in this new era, but Obama’s inaugural address declared liberalism as the true heir to the basic tenets upon which this nation was founded:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that 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… … Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”
Those passage is remarkable, not just for the fact that it marked the first time an American president put the struggle for marriage equality on a par with the all the civil rights movements of our past, but for the lack of controversy his words inspired after they were delivered. It was less than a decade ago that George W. Bush eked out a win over John Kerry largely by using gay rights as a wedge issue. In a breathtakingly short time, the issue of equal rights for gays has lost the power to divide.
All through the speech, the president’s strong voice in defense of collective action signaled not only a complete reversal of the conservative meme that government is always the problem, but government as part of the solution is made to seem as natural to the American condition as the words, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. Using the power of government in promoting the general welfare has been the cornerstone on which progressive ideals have been built since the time of Teddy Roosevelt; ideals which were prevalent throughout the president’s address.
“[W]e resolve that a great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”
“For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Not only was the conservative notion of a country where there are “takers” and “makers” repudiated by the president, he defended the ideals behind Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as forcefully and unequivocally as no president has done since the days of the LBJ and the Great Society. It is in the successes of those programs, which have kept millions of citizens from the grip of poverty and provided them with the health care they would not otherwise have been able to afford, that the concept of government as a protector of basic human dignity and a force for solving complex, seemingly intractable problems is the most evident. And the president proposed using the power of government on a large scale once again in attacking climate change, and the nation’s dependency on oil , problems the Republicans refuse to acknowledge even exist:
“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”
When Ronald Reagan entered office, the institutional memory of the Great Depression was fading. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the core conservative ideology of deregulation. In acknowledging the origins of the 2008 financial crisis, President Obama said “a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.” This simple truism was a complete rejection of the Reaganite philosophy of “getting government out of the way,” which this country has followed for 30 years with disastrous result. In his first term, Obama endorsed the use of government to reregulate financial markets. Now he has declared that it is a basic principle of necessity for insuring a level playing field and stability of the financial markets.
“[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”
That passage was adopted directly from a campaign speech in which the president stated the progressive view that no one truly makes it one their own in this country; that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, no matter how high we climb. It was a concept Republicans dishonestly twisted into the “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build it; someone else did.” attack meme that was the theme of their nominating convention. Yet the president didn’t back away from it. It was there it is in his inaugural address, repeated before millions of viewers watching live and millions more who saw it later, despite the ridicule Republicans heaped on it. It is a concept which he stands by and despite the manufactured derision of it and the millions of dollars from wealthy donors spent attacking it during the campaign.
The president’s second inaugural address was a clear signal that the era of government bashing is over, and on issue after issue, whether on protecting entitlements, dealing with climate change, tax fairness and many other concerns, polling data show most Americans support his agenda. Where all of this leads in the months and years ahead is anyone’s guess. Republicans still control the House of Representatives, and although their approval numbers now hover around 25 percent, they have shown no inclination to adapt positions any different than those they’ve held for over 30 years. Yet there is no doubt that the nation has moved on. This is not the country it was even ten years ago, much less 30. Rapidly changing demographics and a conservative movement that has alienated large swaths of the electorate including Hispanics, African Americans, women and young people have seen to that.
The president has now laid out a progressive governing philosophy for the 21st Century, fearlessly, with eloquence and rooted in our finest traditions.
Welcome to the new America. It’s not ‘Reagan Country” anymore.