A second chance at change

After four years of struggling to articulate his agenda, Obama’s MLK Day inaugural speech could signal a new political moment.

By Luke Brinker

Campaigning in 2008 against a stirring but politically inexperienced orator, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain reminded voters that speeches don’t craft solutions.

Depictions of then-Senator Barack Obama as little more than a skilled rhetorician failed to halt his ascension to the presidency. Over the course of his first term, the President proceeded to dispel doubts about his political finesse. Economists overwhelmingly agree that the 2009 stimulus staved off further economic disaster, as did the politically unpopular bailout of the auto industry. Disregarding cautious centrists within his own party, Obama then pushed hard for the passage of health-care reform. When he signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, Obama fulfilled a policy goal articulated by every Democratic president since Harry Truman. Vice President Joe Biden wasn’t wrong when he described health reform as “a big fucking deal.”

When he faced the American electorate for the second time last fall, Obama could also point to a successful track record on foreign policy. By simple virtue of not acting like the swashbuckling cowboy that was George Walker Bush, Obama dramatically improved America’s global standing. After eight years of U.S. involvement in a Mesopotamian quagmire, Obama ended the war in Iraq. Osama bin Laden met his demise at a Pakistani compound in 2011.

Despite these successes, Obama spent most of his first term struggling to stay above water in public opinion polls. The sluggish pace of the economic recovery engendered frustration. Misleading claims from the likes of Sarah Palin—death panels!—did a real number on the popularity of the health-care law, even though its individual provisions boasted robust public support. Riding a wave of populist angst, the GOP galloped to victory in the 2010 midterms. Gridlock would soon rule the day. Amid the tumultuous debt ceiling standoff in the summer of 2011, Obama’s approval rating dipped into the 30s. Throughout the 2012 campaign, keeping his numbers near the 50-percent mark—just enough to eke out another win—was a tremendous feat.

The great irony of the President’s first term is that the captivating speechmaker proved adept at the substance of policy, but often struggled to galvanize the public. Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama seemed not to care much for the presidential bully pulpit. Vexing many of his supporters, Obama remained confident that if he got the policy right, the politics would eventually fall into place. Big speeches, chants of “Yes We Can”—those belonged to a different, if not quite distant, time. At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last summer, it was not Obama’s listless speech that earned rave reviews, but the compelling remarks of Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama. For once, Obama was no longer his own most effective advocate.

That appeared to change last week, at the President’s second inaugural. Speaking on the federal holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama linked his vision for a fairer, more compassionate society to the great social movements of the past. “We, the people,” he intoned, “declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is that star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” We live in a time of ever-increasing support for full equality for LGBT citizens, but for those of us who vividly remember having a president who supported writing discrimination into the Constitution, Obama’s declaration had a certain radicalism to it.

Sensing that history was running away from them on gay issues, conservatives generally opted not to assail Obama’s paeans to gay rights. Instead, they took him to task for his forceful defense of welfare-state liberalism. In a not-so-thinly veiled reference to erstwhile Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s Randian attack on social programs, Obama denied that those who benefit from Social Security and Medicare are “takers.” Such programs strengthen the social bond, the President argued, providing beneficiaries the economic security that allows them to participate fully in the nation’s civic life.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, referring to a 1995 speech by the centrist Clinton, would have none of it. “For Democrats in the Obama age, the era of ‘big government being over’ is officially over,” the dour Kentuckian lamented on the Senate floor.

And maybe he’s right. Perhaps Democrats’ heads are finally emerging from the sand as they begin to recognize that seven in 10 Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy, and that strong majorities oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare, anti-poverty programs, education, and federal funding for the arts and sciences, according to Gallup. Obama’s address also mentioned climate change, a problem that will require massive investments in clean energy and cutbacks in CO2 emissions. A recent AP poll found that eight in 10 Americans see climate change as a serious threat. McConnell may be disappointed to discover that it’s not just Obama-era Democrats who want more government action. The American public does too.

The President enjoys considerable public backing on a host of issues demanding a vigorous government response. Whether he can translate that support into federal action depends on his commitment to a more effective use of his powers of public persuasion over the next four years. If Obama maintains the fighting spirit he displayed last week, historians may one day write that his presidency marked the start of a new progressive era.

Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.