Barack Obama's foes, in candid moments, will often acknowledge that his most impressive trait is self-confidence. He has a sense of his own destiny, and an inner poise to keep focused on it even amid setback and distraction.
Barack Obama's admirers, in candid moments, will often acknowledge that his most unappealing trait is excessive self-regard. That's when confidence curdles into an arrogance that can cause him to misread his circumstances and underestimate his opposition.
In this light, it's worth pondering: How will Barack Obama's supremely self-confident second inaugural address -- with its high quotient of self-regard and minimally concealed contempt for opponents -- be remembered 10 years from now?
It seems entirely possible this will be seen as a signal event -- the moment when Obama let go of caution, gave up imagining he could persuade or find common ground with conservatives and put the world on notice that he was ready to fight for a liberal agenda and roll right over his opponents. This belief is why many Democrats were enthralled with Obama's address.
It seems just as possible that it will be remembered forlornly -- a moment when Obama naively imagined that fortune was in his favor and did not reckon with how events, and opponents, might have other plans in store.
Under either scenario, it's worth noting that big presidential speeches are often looked back upon not only for what was in them -- but also what wasn't. George W. Bush's first inaugural address hailed civility but made no mention of the quietly, but rapidly, building threat of Islamic terrorism.
Obama's speech -- whether harbinger of a history-making second term or high-water mark before the fall -- was remarkable not only for his ambitious words but for several things that were notably absent:
There was no audience more disappointed than the small cadre of foreign policy and national security experts eager to hear if Obama would use the occasion to articulate some new direction for America's role in the world. What they got was a couple of lines signaling that Obama wants an end to an era of "perpetual war" and that projecting American influence requires not just "force of arms" but also strong alliances and "rule of law." The remarks were in keeping with the liberal spirit of Obama's address, but they were in no way developed into a larger argument.
An inaugural address should not be confused with a State of the Union address or a major policy speech. Presidents aim to sketch one or two large themes, not touch the erogenous zones of every constituency group on every issue.
Even so, the short shrift to the larger world -- even as he touched on voting rights and long Election Day lines at home -- was curious. Traditionally, most presidents spend more time on foreign policy in their second terms. And the particular convergence of issues Obama is facing has enormous potential to dominate his time and agenda. First on that list -- even if the world presents no surprises, though it usually does -- is the looming conflict over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Beyond that, on other occasions, Obama himself has identified a single issue -- the hazard of loose nukes -- as the one that has unmatched potential to alter the course of civilization. "The spread of nuclear weapons or the theft of nuclear material could lead to the extermination of any city on the planet," Obama told an audience in Prague in a major speech in 2009. But this issue did not get a word on Monday.
Even sympathetic commentators were surprised at the domestic emphasis. Amid a deteriorating and deadly civil war in Syria, with Al Qaeda still active, columnist David Ignatius observed that, "Maybe Obama has a strategic vision for the second term. But all I heard ... was a rallying cry to his supporters as they prepare for the political fights ahead."
About those political fights ahead, Obama did not even pretend that they will take place among combatants who fundamentally respect the other side's motives or basic decency. At repeated turns, he signaled the opposite.
Obama used the address to denounce opponents who "mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate." His obstacles include people who ignorantly "still deny the overwhelming judgment of science" on global warming, believe the beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare have turned America into a "nation of takers," and would deny equal protection of voting laws to minorities.
There is no mystery where the absence of goodwill comes from: Obama believes he is matching the contempt conservatives have shown to him with contempt of his own.
But there is also no mistaking the significance of hurling these bolts from an inaugural stage, unprecedented in modern times. Until now, every inaugural address since George H.W. Bush's in 1989, including Obama's first in 2009, has included as a major theme an appeal for greater civility and mutual respect in Washington. The elder Bush said, "To my friends -- and yes, I do mean friends -- in the loyal opposition -- and yes, I mean loyal: I put out my hand." Obama's speech will be recalled as a historical marker noting the decline of the once-common belief that internecine partisan wars in Washington were a short-term aberration that could be stilled through soothing rhetoric or symbolic outreach.
Obama deserves credit for abandoning pretense. Supporters are hailing his fighting words at the Capitol as evidence that he has abandoned his naive hopes of taming the opposition through reason, and will instead bring it to heel by force. Skeptics wonder, as Obama used to believe, whether a president or the nation can be successful in solving large problems in an atmosphere of remorseless conflict.
Obama assumed a pose of political bravery and righteousness on such subjects as equal rights for gays and the imperatives of immigration reform and clean energy.
His words did not reflect on the irony that, until six months ago, his position on gay marriage was less tolerant than Dick Cheney's, and that even now it is the same -- he personally is supportive of gay marriage but believes that individual states should retain the right to ban it. Nor did Obama explain in the inaugural address why immigration reform was not a priority during the first two years of his first term, when Democrats controlled Congress. He also did not expand on why, if the fight against global warming is to be a dominant theme of the second term, it was not a dominant theme of his reelection campaign.
The point is not that anyone expected Obama to grovel at his own inauguration -- that would be unheard of from any president.
But it is true that the expansiveness and ambition of Obama's goals in the inaugural address raise some obvious questions: How exactly do you expect your second-term record in, for instance, changing energy policy to be so different from your first term?
There are surely other formats, including next month's State of the Union address, that are better suited to providing this kind of detail. For now, Obama's speech is being viewed as a powerful statement of aspiration -- a challenge to himself as well as the nation -- or a powerful example of self-indulgence, as though he can change entrenched political realities by proclamation.
Any challenge to his own party
An inaugural address is not historically the place for a Sister Souljah moment, as when Bill Clinton in 1992 showed he would not pander to his African-American supporters by denouncing the violent lyrics of a popular singer.
But since Obama was willing to use the inaugural address to criticize the motives and wisdom of his opponents, it was a notable absence that he never turned the spotlight on his own side -- are there any issues in which Democrats need to rethink old assumptions or take steps that might run counter to the wishes of their own constituencies?
Obama knows the answer is yes. The inaugural speech noted that "We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit." Beyond that one line, however, the speech did nothing to prepare or inspire his own party or the public at large for those choices.
And, for now, the Washington scorecard shows a glaring contradiction: House Speaker John Boehner, who sometimes is mocked by White House officials for being too weak to lead his own party, did cast a vote against GOP orthodoxy this month to raise taxes. Obama has never sought to whip his party behind a vote, much less signed into law, a break from Democratic orthodoxy with his own plan for trimming costly entitlements.
Obama didn't have anything to say Monday about what his reelection campaign said was the most important issue, jobs. Again, an inaugural address is not historically the place for that kind of programmatic detail. But, the economy is a key variable in the 10-year test -- how will Obama's speech be remembered a decade from now. In the address, he declared, "An economic recovery has begun." Parts of the country might well wonder if that's true. His ambitious goals -- and the demographic and ideological dynamics that fueled his 2012 victory and make him so confident now -- will be hobbled if the economy continues to limp in a second term as it did in the first. Words matter, as Obama knows well, but the way these words echo depends on some factors not fully within a president's control.
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.