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Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Deeds over words: Why Obama's inaugural fell short

As a speech, Obama's second inaugural address stood out from the historical norm but his actions lag far behind.
Last Modified: 29 Jan 2013 09:21
President Obama is so obsessed with bipartisanship that he has crippled his administration with inaction [EPA]

No doubt about it, President Barack Obama delivered a progressive speech in his second inaugural address. But the question remains: So what? Presidents are known for what they do, far more than what they say. 

Lyndon Johnson's 1964 inaugural address is rarely thought of, but the legislation he passed - from the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, to Medicare and Head Start, to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, to the first wave of environmental protection legislation, to the creation of the modern public broadcasting system, and so much more under the rubric of "the Great Society" - changed America so profoundly that it shapes the lives of virtually all Americans to this very day. Although his rhetoric is rarely noted, and his memory is mostly associated with his most tragic mistake - waging the Vietnam War for fear of being impeached if he didn't - what mattered most about Johnson's presidency was the sweeping legislation he passed in response to the towering problems of his time. 

If you want to look at powerful, progressive second inaugurals, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt come immediately to mind.   But both men's most consequential progressive actions had already been taken by the time those speeches were given. The Civil War's inevitable course had already been set, and slavery's end set in motion by the time Lincoln spoke. The New Deal's primary architecture - including Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the legalisation of collective bargaining - was all in place as Roosevelt spoke as well, Neither man had weathered all the storms they faced, but both had momentously turned the ship of state away from the path of disaster and onto a course towards eventual safety, security and peace. The words of their second inaugurals matter not just because they are pretty, or even powerful in themselves, but because they ratify great actions.

US Presidential Inauguration - News Coverage

And that is where Obama's inaugural falls short. To his credit, he seems to have learned something since his first inagural four years ago. He finally seems to accept political battles as part of political life. But does he even know what battles he needs to fight? As Dean Baker recently wrote in these pages, the staggering loss of wealth and income from the Great Recession continues to be ignored. If some foreign enemy inflicted such losses on us, it would be cause for war. Yet, what trace of recognition was there in Obama's speech?

Consider the salient markers of loss that Baker mentioned: "$960 billion in lost annual demand", "9 million jobs below where we would be if the economy had continued its trend growth path", a cumulative loss in GDP of "$6.2 trillion. That comes to $80,000 in lost output for an average family of four", with "little prospect that things will get much better. At the current rate at which the economy is adding jobs, we won't make up our jobs deficit until the middle of the next decade".

Hello! Is anybody there? Obviously not.

To his credit, Obama did deliver one significant line, reflecting a key argument Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker made in his 2006 book, The Great Risk Shift: "The commitments we make to each other - through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security - these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

The main argument of Hacker's book was that corporations and other large institutions that are inherently capable of handling risk have spent the last few decades shifting it onto families and individuals, who are clearly unable to handle it, and that policies are desparately needed to reverse this trend. But Hacker also made a vital sub-argument about the fundamental nature of risk-protection.

In January 2008, just after Obama won the Iowa primary, and eight months before the Wall Street meltdown, I wrote a diary at Open Left, "The Great Risk Shift-A Substantive Fight That Obama COULD Make His Own". In it, I explained this sub-argument:

It's not simply a matter of protecting folks at the bottom, Hacker argues - effective dealing with risk is vital for creating an environment in which people feel secure enough to take on the sort of voluntary risk that helps drive the economy forward - what's often called "entrepreneurial risk", but that includes a wide range of choices to invest resources of time, money and effort in future possibilities that by their very nature cannot be certain. These include investments in eduction, training, changing careers, starting a new business, etc. In short, Hacker argues, a security orientation is not the polar opposite to an opportunity orientation - it is a vital aspect of an opportunity orientation. And it's this latter argument that gives Hacker's point about countering the Great Risk Shift a potential bipartisan cross-over appeal that fits perfectly with Obama's articulated intentions.

The last sentence there is politically crucial. Obama has wasted his entire presidency in a fruitless search for top-down bipartisanship eminating down from Congressional Republican leaders. But those leaders have repeatedly shown that they have absolutely no interest in doing anything for bipartisan purposes. On the other hand, the bipartisan appeal of a social insurance/opportunity orientation has been present among the great mass of the American people, at least since the passage of Social Security prior to the 1936 election, when early Gallup polling showed landslide support for the new programme.

And little wonder. The fact that social insurance enables productive and creative risk-taking, such as long-term investment in education, is a fundamental truth that every American should recognise as easily as 2+2=4. The financial autonomy our senior citizens rigfhtfully enjoy, due to Social Security and Medicare, frees up vast sums of family resources to spend on the next generation, investing in their futures. This has been a basic fact of life for most American families for almost five decades now with respect to Medicare and almost eight decades with respect to Social Security.  We literally cannot remember or honestly conceive of any other way. The American people know this in their everyday lives. It's well past time that America's political elites woke up and realised it as well.

At his best - as he was in his inaugural address - Obama speaks with a progressive voice, but he's speaking to and for an audience of political elites, for whom it's a strange and foreign concept that security for the nation's seniors is a source of opportunity for the nation's youth. Everyday Americans might not realise this either - though for a somewhat different reason: it's been said that no one knows who discovered water, we only know that it wasn't a fish, 

The American people swim in an ocean of hard-won shared security, which most of America's political elites would carelessly toss away, returning us to an age of Dickensian savagery that most Americans can't even begin to imagine. In his speech, Obama thoughtfully took a few moments to rebuke such thinking, but he did not take time to elaborate at any length, to turn a soundbite into an extended argument, or to extend the security-promotes-opportunity argument to challenge of dealing responsibly with climate change. More to the point, he has done nothing, so far, to translate such an argument into policy actions that protect individuals and families from risk, so that they themselves are empowered to invest in and create their own futures. That is what a truly progressive president would do. That is what America needs from Obama in his second term. That is how his presidency should be measured, Start with that at the very core, and build outward from there.

And as for those who persist in screaming, "socialist!", we would all do very well to remember the last line of the Declaration of Independence, and the middle term of the closing pledge: "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

Think about it for a moment: Pledging our fortunes to each other - a key element of creating collective security in order to enable individual liberty. That's not Karl Marx speaking. It's Thomas Jefferson.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he's worked since 2002. He's also written for Publishers WeeklyChristian Science MonitorLA TimesLA Weeklyand Denver Post. In 2000/2001 he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA.  He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011. 

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