Obama Talks About Togetherness While Skewering GOP

National Journal

At least 10 times during his second inaugural address, President Obama made unmistakable allusions to Republican ideas that he rejects and wants the country to reject – even as he wrapped the critiques in a call for togetherness.

Progress in the past has been a collective enterprise, Obama said, whether it involved transportation, education, caring for the vulnerable, or ensuring fair play in a free market. To realize the “limitless possibilities” of the current moment, he said, Americans must move forward “as one nation, and one people.”

In defining his vision of forward, Obama did not spare conservatives. Here are some of his more pointed remarks:

  • “The commitments we make to each other,” such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, strengthen people rather than sap their initiative. “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great,” he said. Those were direct rebuttals of claims by conservatives, topped by the Republican ticket he defeated.
  • “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science,” but the nation must respond to the threat of climate change. That was a reminder of the antiscience strain of the GOP. “We will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God,” he said, invoking a stewardship principle popularized by some evangelical Christians.
  • “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.” It was a defense of his administration’s investments in clean energy, in the face of GOP attacks on the failed investment in Solyndra and picking winners and losers in general.
  • “Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” That was aimed at George W. Bush’s foreign policy and Republicans who want to extend the 11-year U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
  • “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” An attempt to pin those lines on voting restrictions imposed by Republican legislatures.

Obama also mentioned income inequality, equal pay for women, equal treatment of gay people, a warm welcome for immigrants, and safety for children in Newtown, Conn., and elsewhere – an indirect reference to his gun-control agenda.

Every one of these issues fractures Republicans. The speech, devoid as it was of olive branches, played into the emerging Republican consensus that Obama is trying to divide and destroy the GOP.

They are right about the division part, though likely mistaken when they impute a motive to destroy. As in, he is proposing comprehensive gun control and immigration reform – instead of teeny slices of those packages – in order to set GOP factions against each other and blow up the party. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently made that argument, yearning for the “learn to crawl” piecemeal approach but anticipating that Obama would choose “kill the wounded” instead.

By that logic, coming from Brooks and others, you could assume a president was aiming to destroy the opposition party every time he or she did anything that attracted some opposition votes but not all of them. Bush-era initiatives that divided Democrats would include tax cuts, the Iraq war, and his Medicare prescription-drug program. Did he propose invading Iraq because it would pit Democrat against Democrat?  

Please. It’s far more likely that Bush believed in those causes and peeled off as many Democrats as he could in order to win passage or, if he had enough votes, to earn a bit of bipartisanship and justification for his “uniter, not divider” campaign slogan.

The same likely holds true for Obama. The difference is that for most of Obama’s first term, the GOP resembled what Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan called a “grim monolith” – no differences of opinion or conscience votes allowed. She pleaded with Republicans to think and vote for themselves.

On Monday, Obama pitched his speech over the heads of Congress and directly to citizens, prodding them to get involved and “set this country’s course.” He did that secure in the knowledge that not only did he win reelection, but that public opinion polls show majority support for most of his goals.

That includes a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, a “balanced” budget approach that includes both tax hikes and spending cuts, and universal background checks for gun purchasers. Brooks lamented that last proposal as “inviting a long battle” with the National Rifle Association, yet one poll found 90 percent support for it.

Republicans clearly have some choices ahead, and Obama is not making it easy for them. He did not in his inaugural address speak soothingly of sitting down and reasoning together (though he did sit down for coffee at the White House with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday). Instead, he called out Republicans with this declarative sentence: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”

While that may not be the best relationship-building technique, it's a fact that Republicans did not make the past four years easy for Obama. The unanswered question is how hard they will make it for themselves, and him, over the next four.

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