The Inaugural: Symbols Over Substance

It was the most liberal speech our president has given. But actions would speak louder than words.

The liberals and the conservatives in my twitter feed seemed to be listening to different speeches. The liberals were electrified with the bold stances the president was taking, gay marriage and climate change chief among them. Conservatives read it as a lot of empty platitudes about togetherness, followed by a bit of eye-poking to make it clear that anything we did together would necessarily be directed by Obama, not his opponents.

I thought the speech had some great lines, like "History tells us that while these truths may be self evident, they are not self executing." But overall, I was neither transported with joy, nor thrown into a rage. The most emotional part was simply the awareness that our nation had re-elected its first black president, a moment that was remarkable for how little his skin color mattered. We have come a long way indeed, and whether or not you supported his re-election, that is some glad knowledge.

I side with the liberals on one thing: it was arguably the most liberal speech our president has given. Which is news, of a sort. But I side with the conservatives in thinking that this was largely a big yawn. The president gave a speech which maks his base happy, but entirely on symbolic grounds. He promised nothing of substance, and covered no issue which actually commits him to delivering anything. Obama is against "perpetual war", but also wants to support democracy and "act on behalf of those who long for freedom." He wants shorter voting lines and "a better way to welcome" immigrants. He wants children to be safe and cared for. The last is a vague hope shared by all Americans (no really--even the ones who disagree with you about stuff!) The rest are carefully phrased to offer no actual benchmarks.

The speech does seem to be promising more on gay marriage and climate change, but whatever he is promising, he has no way to deliver. Climate change is, for reasons I recently outlined, not going anywhere. Marriage is largely a state matter, and while there are federal initiatives he might push (like making gay couples eligible for social security, or various tax credits), I am extremely skeptical that Obama could or would push them through the legislature. Gay marriage is advancing rapidly, but it is not yet so popular that Obama can count on public opinion to force the GOP's hand; rather the reverse, if anything. Especially since any such bills would come with a non-insubstantial price tag, at a time when the public is starting to push back against the debt.

If inaugural addresses tell you anything about the presidency that follows, here's what this speech predicts: an administration in which Obama pleases his base by talking tougher to the GOP, without delivering any of the changes that his tough talk suggests.

It's a plausible reading, not just of the speech, but of the political situation that brought us to this moment. We face enormous challenges as Obama enters his second term: slow growth, increasing structural gaps in the budget, and a political as divided as it has been at any time since the civil war. Words will not solve those problems. But so far, no one in our political class has been brave enough to offer real action.