Obama inaugural: Marking a new progressive era?

The president sounded clear and firm about an activist agenda in his second term

January 21, 2013|Dan Rodricks

In what might have been President Barack Obama's most progressive speech, his second inaugural address Monday marked a distinct change from the so-called New Democrat ideology of pragmatism and compromise to a full embrace of the principles that once put the Democratic Party squarely on the side of the middle class and the poor.

Better late than never.

It is only because the tea party has pushed the Republican Party further to the far right — and perhaps off the cliff — that Barack Obama is seen by some as a liberal.

In fact, he is the latest in a long line of New Democrats who, provided their orders by the influential Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s, marched to the middle and even appropriated ideas from conservatives — the overemphasis on welfare as a problem and the problematic reforms that ensued; support of the death penalty and mandatory minimum sentences to secure tough-on-crime bona fides while extending the fruitless and expensive war on drugs; financial deregulation that unleashed a long run of reckless Wall Street behavior that Depression-era Democrats had acted to curb; and the embrace of free trade, which did little to help the middle class.

The New Democrats of the Clinton era became almost indistinguishable from Republicans. Income disparity continued to grow; the middle class continued its descent.

No doubt his supporters will say Obama's first-term expansion of health care marked a return to the populist progressivism of the Great Society and New Deal.

But Obamacare is not the single-payer system that had been a foundational concept of the reforms long advocated by leading Democrats — that is, Ted Kennedy and others who were unashamed of their party's New Deal/Great Society roots.

While the right continues to bash Obamacare as "socialism," it is still a health insurance system that leaves big room for corporate profits. Single-payer was a nonstarter. It not only stands as one of Obama's first-term quick-retreats, it constituted a concession by today's middling Democrats that the same government that provides Social Security and Medicare couldn't be trusted to extend affordable health care to millions of uninsured Americans.

The president had little to say during his first term and his re-election campaign about the poor, about climate change or about regulating the kinds of firearms used in mass killings. And the record will show that public remarks by his vice president forced Obama into supporting the right of gay couples to be legally wed.

The president did demand that the wealthy pay more in taxes in a plan to deal with the federal budget deficit and, in the long term, the national debt, but that, of course, was after extending Bush-era tax cuts at the end of 2011 and, throughout the recession, offering only mild criticism of Wall Street's role in the financial collapse that caused it.

Now, recognizing the demographic changes that have taken place in the country, the president no longer sees the need to take part in the pursuit of the so-called Reagan Democrats as Bill Clinton and other New Democrats did.

He knows the party's future is with women and minorities, so Obama is now free to pursue a more aggressively progressive agenda and embrace government action to help the middle class and poor. That explains, for one thing, the president's pre-election order to halt some of the thousands of deportations of undocumented young immigrants that his administration had carried out.

However Obama came to this new appreciation of progressivism, it is most welcome.

His second inaugural speech provided some hope for the progressives who have been waiting to hear a self-described New Democrat return to some old ideals that, despite being dismissed by neo-conservative revisionists, made life better for millions of Americans.

"The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security —these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us," the president said. "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

Obama gave shout-outs to equal pay for women, equal rights for gays, immigration reform and early voting — for him, that was a load of white-hot progressivism.

For me, this was the president's best line:

"We 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."

It's good to have a president with young children in the White House; he can better imagine the consequences of sitting still and not taking action on climate change — the big one — or on renewable energy, or education or income inequality.

"Decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay," he said.

We'll soon see whether Barack Obama really means his second term to be the start of a new progressive era — smart, forward-thinking, principled and to the greater good — or if he simply adorned a day of pageantry with some fine and pretty words.


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