Sunday, July 13, 2014
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The America of his dreams

Dick Polman: Judging by the content of Barack Obama's Inaugural address, it is clear that he yearns to turn the page on the past and govern as a "post-partisan" president.

The America of his dreams

President Barack Obama speaks during the inaugural luncheon on Capitol Hill. (Sen. Patrick Leahy / AP)
President Barack Obama speaks during the inaugural luncheon on Capitol Hill. (Sen. Patrick Leahy / AP)

Judging by the content of Barack Obama's Inaugural address - an assertive speech punctuated by muscular patriotic passages, and somber meditations on our perilous moment - it is clear that he yearns to turn the page on the past and govern as a "post-partisan" president.

If he can really pull that off, he'd be the first of the 44 to do it. The odds are against it. But, like any new president on day one, Obama took the opportunity to conjur the America of his dreams.

Petty politics and ideological combat have always been staples of Washington governance (and mis-governance), which is why President John Adams, miffed by the vicious politicking that contributed to his defeat in 1800, subsequently decided to skip town on Inauguration Day rather than watch rival Thomas Jefferson take the oath. Jefferson then declared in his Inaugural address that he intended to turn the page on the past and usher in a post-partisan era of unity; as he insisted that day, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." It was a nice sentiment, anyway.

Other new presidents tried the same approach, conjuring visions of a post-partisan climate. Even Richard Nixon tried it. Check out his 1969 Inaugural speech, and you'll find him urging all Americans "to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us. To lower our voices would be a simple thing. In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words...We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another."

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That sounds a lot like what we heard today from Obama, who declared: "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics...in the words of the Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things...the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."

Given how badly things worked out with Nixon, perhaps the efficacy of the post-partisan message depends on the quality of the messenger - and on the willingness of his listeners to heed the message. Obama has been pushing this message since the day he announced his candidacy; he has entered the White House on a wave of good will that is unprecedented in contemporary polling. Most importantly, the movement he built was incrementally strengthened and sustained by ordinary, independent-minded citizens who were fed up with the predictable left-right paradigm - and yearned for a post-partisan president.

We'll see how well that experiment goes. When I heard Obama talk about the importance of national unity, about the need for one and all to pitch in and renew America, about the urgency of ushering in "a new era of responsibility," all I could bring to mind was the winter news out of Detroit, where SUV sales have gone right back up as the cost of gasoline has gone down. Forgive me for not immediately adopting the buoyant, besotted tone of the TV news anchors today...but the odds are surely decent that Obama's call for a new American far-sighted selflessness ("a willingness to find meaning in something greater than ourselves") could soon clash with another enduring American trait - namely, short-sighted selfishness.

Nevertheless, Obama made a characteristically powerful case for the America he'd like to see. His goal was to give us a thematic overture for his administration, and, in sports lingo, he gave it his best shot. Many Inaugural addresses have been long and soporific. This one was short (only 18 minutes); and, at times, it cut like a serrated knife.

He minced no words about the current crises, which he likened to "gathering clouds and raging storms...They are serious and they are many." When he uttered his call for a renewed national purpose ("we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America"), he sought to frame it as a grand American tradition, by extolling "the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things" who built the country and died fighting for it "in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn (the latter being a Vietnam battlefield, a canny signal from Obama that we need to get past the '60s.)

At different points in his speech, he discomfited both Republicans and Democrats. The latter camp undoubtedly cheered the passage that sounded like New Deal 2.0: "The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do."

He plucked this chord again when talking about Wall Street, and the need for a new regulatory era: "(T)his crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous."

And Obama's voters undoubtedly loved the passages where the new president trashed the old president who sat just a few feet away: "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake." (Translation: George W. Bush, by violating the U.S. Constitution, not to mention the Geneva Conventions, violated our enduring American ideals.)

And then, moments later, came this: "(E)arlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint...Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats..." (Translation: By acting inprudently in Iraq, and thinking that he could do as he pleased, Bush violated our enduring American principles.)

But he spoke to conservatives by insisting that he will not tolerate government inefficiency: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works...Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government." Much of that passage could have been voiced by John McCain.

And these muscular passages, as well, could have easily come from McCain: "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you...To those (in the Muslim world) who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

In essence, Obama sketched a possible future in which left and right can theoretically meet at the midpoint, joined by mutual love of country. (This midpoint, not coincidentally, is the sweet spot for any president.) Hence his paean to durable American verities: "Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths." And then, as a clincher, he brought up George Washington.

Other new presidents have invoked many of these themes on Inauguration Day. Just as Obama is calling for a post-partisan era, so did Nixon and the senior George Bush. Just as Obama wants to "restore the vital trust between a people and their government," so did Jimmy Carter declare in 1977 that "we must once again have full faith in our country." Just as Obama says he seeks a new era of American renewal, so did Bill Clinton declare in 1993 that "a new season of American renewal had begun."

But Obama has the advantage of taking office at a time when most Americans (78 percent, as evidenced by the latest poll) are exhausted and distressed by the multiple failures of the past eight years. Obama has their full attention. And, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated, it's probably wrong to underestimate a president who has strong communication skills.

It's hard to know, on day one, whether Obama's post-partisan vision will prove workable or delusional - that may well hinge on his powers of persuasion, and the willingness of the people to be persuaded - but, for most Americans, it was sufficient on day one just to turn the page and anticipate the possibilities.

For now, there is the allure of the new; the old is gone, as embodied by Dick Cheney in his wheelchair. Obama's true testing will come soon, and, if his words today were prologue, ours will come too.

 

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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