Uncompromising: Obama’s 2nd Inaugural

President Obama’s second inaugural address was inspiring, the messages of inclusiveness most sweet, but I have to add my voice to the chorus of disappointment. I had a dream the day prior that some truly nonpartisan commitments would pass his lips along the lines of “Let us bind up the nation’s wounds.” With history offering this young president a second chance to carve some immortal words, to take a stand apart from partisans totems, he retreated to the easy path of slogans that sees the world divided into his allies and his small-minded opponents.

In a word, the President was uncompromising. That is the unmistakable subtext of his attitude since last year, which made sense during an election, but Obama has now affirmed that not compromising will be the essence of his second term in the White House. Key cabinet appointments confirm the uncompromising approach he intends on economic and defense matters.  Some might call it principled, but his weighty speech only poured more concrete into the extremist economic positions of the Democratic party: affirming a view of rich-versus-poor, claiming the economy has recovered (!), calling for more public goods as the thing-to-be-done with mere rhetorical gestures toward entrepreneurship and individual responsibility. The worst line, and one that will haunt the next four years, is his hard line against recognizing the fiscal imbalance of entitlements. I was shocked to hear it:

“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 word deficit was mentioned only once, briefly, but not debt, not the scope of the problem, not the dark shadow that fiscal issues cast over America’s future. Obama is long overdue on his past promises to make hard choices, but he makes the same empty promise again, then proceeds to offer strawman choices:

“But 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.”

Who doesn’t reject that? What’s the point, then?

But that line was like so many others in the speech: logically impaired. I tend to read the text with a critical mind, but some lines make no sense. A sampling, just from the first section:

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers.

Why this empty marker “modern economy?” Did ancient economies not enhance their productivity with roads? Did higher levels of human capital have no benefit in previous times or in non-democratic societies? No and no. But the implication is that government has a provisioning role–one that “we determined”–which is not logically coherent. If anything, there is an emerging recognition that centrally managing transportation and education through the government, insulated from market forces, is inefficient. In the two months that this speech was being drafted, the world famous beltway around DC was introducing new, dynamic toll lanes. The coincidence is almost funny. Meanwhile, public schools are transforming from command-oriented to market-oriented through the relentless expansion of charters and vouchers. Yet in DC, the Obama administration chose to let a very popular voucher program expire, leaving countless poor kids trapped in bad schools. A visionary president would have described the forces in play. We can imagine individualized learning and credentialing that displace industrial-era diploma factories. But no.

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

What does this sentence mean? Rules exist to define what ‘fair play’ is. Ensuring fair play is about enforcement of rules, not rules themselves. What the President seems to want to say is that the liberal orthodoxy of regulation is better than anarchy or what the left calls market fundamentalism. So? Again, who disagrees with that? As a statement here, he is asserting bluntly that more rules mean more fairness. That fails logically, and is disappointingly shallow. Why not a whisper about regulations that choke entrepreneurial dreams of the poorest Americans? Why is risk-taking the privy of well-connected venture capitalists with money for tax and regulatory compliance? His ideas here fail as badly as his words.

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

The President trying to establish a marker that there was (and naturally is) a consensus that the government is the insurer of last resort. Because, we all know, private insurance fails, right? So what will Americans say when death (one of ‘life’s worst hazards’) keeps happening, and at more expense to the dying, in the wake of the federal government’s expansive new role as the health insurer of last resort? As a principle, insurance in this worldview is a blank check. It holds: the damage from any misfortune, especially in this era of man-made climate change, is surely not to be the responsibility of the individual who builds a home on a sandbar, but on his fellow citizens.

I appreciate the sleight of hand, to assert that these principles are fundamental liberties, to be found in the best intentions of the Framers. But they not. Liberty means freedom TO do things, not freedom FROM things.

I have to admit that Glenn and I were worried that our book would lose almost all of its relevance if the political climate in DC improved. Our prediction is that political compromise is becoming less possible. Woe to book sales if Obama overcame the baser pressures of our times. Well, not to worry for the book’s message — it is more valid today than when we first proposed it. But even more to worry for the country, as we embark on four years of an uncompromising White House.

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