Did the Inaugural Address Reveal the Real Obama?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

I have been extremely critical of President Obama, starting even before he took office four years ago.  (Remember the controversy over the right-wing evangelist, whom Obama invited to give the invocation prayer at the first inaugural?)  He chose an economic team that was, completely predictably, a retread of the team that talked then-President-elect Clinton in 1992 into dropping his plans to increase public investment, and which happily set in motion the pro-Wall Street regulatory changes in 1999 that led to the financial crisis in 2008.

As disappointed as I was during and immediately after the transition in 2008-09, however, I could never have imagined that Obama would adopt economic orthodoxy as much as he has, especially his turn toward deficit reduction in 2010.  He actively defended a much-too-weak stimulus, and he pushed for fiscal contraction when there was no evidence that the economy was even close to recovering.  By the time of the first 2012 presidential faux debate, I was not at all surprised that Obama still sounded like the Clintonian triangulator that he obviously was (and probably had been all along), sounding the surrender on Social Security, deficits, taxes, and so on.

Even so, Obama lived up to my prediction by adopting what I have dubbed "the last two weeks strategy" during his re-election campaign, by which center-right Democratic Leadership Council types start sounding like New Deal Democrats, counting on (among other things) money and effort from the labor unions that those politicians otherwise do so little to support (and often actively undermine).  I was surprised that Obama went last-two-weeks a bit early this time around, but that was explainable by the (unjustified) negative overreaction to his first debate performance.  He then ran like a defender of the New Deal and Great Society programs that the public loves.

Still, it was hardly a surprise that he actually offered to cut Social Security cost-of-living adjustments as part of his failed effort to reach a deal on taxes and spending before January 1 of this year.  The deal that he did eventually sign, even though it has somehow been spun as a "win" for Obama, was simply not a good deal.  His strategy of non-negotiation on the debt ceiling has worked temporarily, but we have no idea what he has in mind for the upcoming spending and tax negotiations.

How, then, might one interpret his second inauguration address?  Because I have tired of watching Obama's speeches (the best of them only making the later disappointment worse), I did not watch the events on Monday of this week.  To judge by the reactions, however, it was the kind of speech that should have made my liberal heart soar.  All of the people who hate Obama were enraged.  My favorite was Pat Buchanan's nasty comment that the reference to Stonewall was unworthy of inclusion, because the Stonewall riot was merely a "brawl."  Right, and Lexington and Concord were just a bunch of louts stirring up trouble.  (Note: I am not at all related to Pat Buchanan, which makes me suspect that maybe there really is a God!)  We knew that the Fox-iverse (including Fox's employees who serve in Congress) would hate it, but they REALLY hated it.  I guess mentioning climate change, and gay marriage, and going out of his way to respond eloquently to the makers/takers thing hit all the right notes.

More surprisingly, perhaps, has been the full-throated glee from the political left.  The editor of The Progressive (probably the only magazine that I read that is to my left), actually wrote: "I Loved, Loved, Loved Obama's Inaugural Address."  And as far as I can see from the clips I have watched, and the segments of the speech that I have read, there was a lot to like.  Apparently, Obama even (mostly) managed to avoid sounding like a deficit scold during the speech.  Another writer in The Progressive even invoked something akin to the last-two-weeks strategy: "Instead of a pean to bipartisanship and sensible, middle-of-the-road governance, we got the fiery Obama of the closing days of his last campaign."

Obviously, even if Obama has suddenly revealed himself to have been a closet liberal all along (or to have become one more recently), his ability to act on those views is severely restricted by political realities.  House Republicans show very little sign of growing up, trying to cover their retreat in the debt ceiling battle with mindless jibes at Senate Democrats.  Even a fully engaged, fully liberated Obama could only do a small amount of good.

But that still leaves us with the question of whether the openly liberal Obama whom we have recently seen is "the real Obama."  Bill Clinton was famous for being able to "talk from the left, but govern from the center," and Obama's track record (even before the House changed hands in the 2010 midterm elections) suggests that he is every bit as good as Clinton at unilateral surrender on liberal goals.

Admittedly, his party has not been very helpful.  I recently saw, for example, that Bob Woodward's most recent book included a claim that Obama created the Bowles-Simpson commission at the insistence of now-retired Democratic Senator Kent Conrad.  (If I read the snippet correctly, Conrad threatened to hold up a debt ceiling increase, to force Obama's hand!)  This at least helps to explain why Obama went forward with that ridiculous commission, even after the Republicans said that they no longer supported its creation.  Nevertheless, Obama replaced Tim Geithner with Jack Lew, a politically savvy guy who is all about austerity and fiscal orthodoxy.  Lew is a smart guy, and a good operative, but he seems to represent no break at all from the Rubin-Summers-Geithner run of deficit-obsessed economic advisers.

In short, I strongly suspect that the inaugural address was the last we will see of Liberal Obama.  We will know that I am wrong if we see Obama actually put effort behind the various ideas that he so movingly described.  Having him in office is much, much better than the alternative, but that is far different from actually carrying through on his beautiful words from Monday.