(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Consensus! Left and right agree that Barack Obama not only gave a powerfully liberal inaugural address, but that he touched on all the important bases. “In effect, Mr. Obama endorsed the entire liberal agenda as the guiding star of his next four years in the White House,” wrote Fred Barnes in The Wall Street Journal. New Yorker editor David Remnick called it “Barack Obama without apology—a liberal emboldened by political victory and a desire to enter the history books with a progressive agenda.”
Curiously, the so-called “center” appeared to be more upset about this than conservatives. While the latter at least grasped the concept of having been defeated in an election, the punditocracy’s wise men wanted to pretend it never happened. National Journal pundit (and Karl Rove e-mail buddy) Ron Fournier bemoaned what he termed Obama’s “sad capitulation to the times. It is as if Obama threw up his hands in (understandable) disgust with his polarizing rivals and declared, ‘If I can’t beat ’em, I’ll join ’em.’” He blamed the president for “raising expectations—this time for combat over a liberal agenda that will save the planet, fortify the middle class, protect entitlements, regulate guns and extend gay rights.” (Actually, Obama didn’t mention gun control, but never mind…) Looking for a wing-man, Fournier cited his fellow punditocracy pooh-bah, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who insisted “the country needs a president who can do more than advance, incrementally, a partisan agenda”; instead, he should “somehow rally the country to restructure Medicare and Social Security.” (Emphasis, one assumes, on the word “somehow.”) David Brooks, meanwhile, rather bizarrely imagined Obama and congressional Democrats working to kill the GOP by “invit[ing] a series of confrontations with Republicans over things like the debt ceiling—make them look like wackos willing to endanger the entire global economy.” (“I’m sorry, officer. Something I said must have inspired that gentleman to embark on a rampage of rape and murder.”)
I’m happy to admit that the delusional “Can’t we all just get along?” spirit of Obama’s first term didn’t prepare me for the strong speech he gave starting his second. Like most liberals, I was moved by the poetry of inclusion. I was especially pleased by the marker he laid down on climate change. And I loved the way he stuck it to conservatives not only politically, but philosophically—like Ronald Reagan, but in reverse.
What troubled me was not so much the speech itself but the reaction it inspired. For if this is the sum total of contemporary liberalism, it has an awfully big hole in the middle. Sure, we liberals love gay rights, women’s rights and civil rights, but that is supposed to be—at most—only half the story. Liberalism’s social and cultural agendas shone brightly in the inaugural day sun; its economic component, not so much. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy noticed this, explaining: “In a world of tight budgets and congressional gridlock, one of the advantages of emphasizing civil rights is that it doesn’t cost any money.”