New Term, New Attitude

A New Obama

The Obama we saw yesterday is simply not the same politician who governed for the past four years. He’s a better one, says Paul Begala.

Back in November more than 60 million Americans thought they were voting to reelect the man who has served as our president for the past four years. Little did we know that a very different man would place his hand on the Bibles of President Lincoln and Dr. King.

President Obama’s second inaugural address marked an important departure from the tone and tenor of his first term. His speech was philosophical rather than political. He confidently took his part in a debate that stretches back centuries.

The president gave the communitarian vision in contraposition to Reagan’s anti-government individualism. He mocked the notion that an individual alone can meet and master the challenges of the 21st century as akin to sending musket-bearing militiamen to confront Hitler’s Panzers. Again and again he repeated “We the People,” citing our secular Scripture to root his call for common action. There was no mistaking the central message: an embrace of the common good and a rejection of the radical right. He even managed to dismiss both the top 1 percent and the Tea Party in one sentence: “The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.” He similarly destroyed Rep. Paul Ryan’s loathsome trope that too many Americans are “takers” rather than “makers” because they receive Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid benefits, saying those programs “do not make us a nation of takers, they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

There is, however, a big difference between Obama and Reagan. Reagan and the right define themselves in large measure by denigrating the left. (“Government is not the solution; government is the problem.”) Republicans who sought to replace him called for abolishing the EPA and dismantling several cabinet agencies, from Education to Energy. Mitt Romney said he would privatize FEMA, saying it is “immoral” for a government in debt to provide disaster assistance. Obama did not answer their right-wing nonsense with left-wing nonsense, thank goodness. Thus Obama’s philosophy is more positive, more affirming, and more of a synthesis of America’s 225-year debate over individualism versus communitarianism. It is also more mainstream. If he were to be as far left as some in the GOP are right, he would have sent SEAL Team Six to liberate the boardroom of Exxon-Mobil. Instead, Obama honored America’s entrepreneurial spirit, saying, “Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.” It is hard to find Reagan celebrating collective action as earnestly.

Obama sought to strike a classically American balance, celebrating individual initiative and insisting that we are also one nation under God. No government bureaucracy could have produced the genius of Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs, but no profit motive could have inspired Abraham Lincoln or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The new Obama is more combative. He signaled this even before his speech. His nomination of Chuck Hagel is a slap in the face of the neocons, and his post-Newtown advocacy of gun-safety laws is a direct assault on the entrenched power of the NRA.

Obama is too smart to use just one tactic. I think you will see him more ready to use practical carrots and sticks, not just airy-fairy Kumbaya appeals, which got him nothing in his first term. Nor did he waste time decrying the puniness and partisanship of our politics. It is petty, but his constant railing against human nature reminds one of King Canute ordering the tide to recede. This is an important rhetorical evolution for the president. Perhaps he is becoming less obsessed with process than with results, less convinced his mere presence will transcend partisanship, and more committed to mastering and manipulating our messy, imperfect democratic system to advance his notion of a more perfect Union.

“Our journey is not complete,” the president said. Nor is his.