Why Obama Needs to Deliver a Tough Inaugural

Obama should be combative, not conciliatory, in his inaugural, says Michael Tomasky.

Barack Obama starts his second term Monday. Or Sunday, technically. That in itself makes this a good week. And while I know I should be thinking about higher-plane issues like the great arcs of history and liberalism and whether Gunnar Myrdal or William Julius Wilson had it right all along, as I watch him take the oath (which I trust John Roberts has been practicing this time), I’m going to be thinking chiefly about two things. First, all my hundreds of right-wing commenters over the years who assured me (in increasingly hysterical and sadistic language) that he’d never be nominated, then that he could never win, then that he would never succeed, then that he’d certainly never be reelected, etc. Don’t worry, I’m not holding my breath waiting for your mea culpae. And second, I’m very curious to see what kind of tone he seeks to establish in his address. I hope it’s combative, and I hope he has some language in there that’s new and startling and tells this town that the second-term Obama is going to be a much tougher customer than the first.

I know. Presidents are supposed to rise above that for inaugural addresses. Supposed to be very high-minded. That would be nice. But these are low-minded times, and he’s got some extremely low-minded opposition. Obama spent part of his first term, a lot of his first term, being far more high-minded than they deserve.

It cost him a lot, and it may have cost the country even more. Early on, in the interest of conciliation, and because he understood what a storm it would kick up on the right, he decided on no torture-related prosecutions. Probably the right thing politically. But the country pays a long-term price for letting all that disgusting business happen in our name with no consequences. On more prosaic skirmishes, Obama let the Republicans define the debate—notably the spring 2011 government shutdown threat and the summer 2011 debt-limit mess. For all he accomplished—and he did accomplish a lot, there’s no denying that—he also let himself get pushed around.

Well, no more. He needs to send a signal in his address that he means business and that he’s figured out who’s boss. A first-term president with very little Washington and world experience in the middle of the worst economic crisis in 80 years was bound to be a little tentative. But now he’s a second-termer with plenty of experience, knowledge of the sort that only the president has, and a recovering economy (for which he’s bound to get the credit). He’s pretty popular again. The Republicans contrive new ways every day to get less popular. He’s got the upper hand, and he needs to act like it.

That doesn’t mean an explicitly partisan speech about specific policies. That would be, in addition to inappropriate, crushingly dull. It does mean a speech in which he puts forward an idea about the country that is pointed and that can’t be expressed in the usual inoffensive platitudes.

George W. Bush did this very well in his second inaugural address, which I actually thought was a terrifically good speech, one of the more memorable inaugural speeches of our time. It was, you might recall, all about democracy promotion being America’s ineluctable post-9/11 destiny. I was not the world’s biggest fan of democracy promotion Bush-Cheney style. But I was impressed by the speech that articulated it, because I had to admit: Bush was speaking with force; he was unapologetically stating a vision and destiny that were specifically derived from his ideology; he was saying to Democrats, but without being explicitly partisan: “This is the program, people. Get with it.”

Liberals, your correspondent very much included, spent years being repulsed by the Bush swagger. But actually, Obama could use a dollop of it. It’s his town now, and he needs to act like it. He needs to shock people a little, so they get the message. If I were David Axelrod, one of my instructions to the speechwriters would be: Put one thing in there, just one thing, that will really, deeply offend David Gergen.

Then of course after the speech he needs to govern that way. He’s off to a decent start. He won the fiscal-cliff fight. The Republicans just caved on the debt fight. Okay, it was a semi-cave, but still, they’re no longer standing pat on the Boehner Rule (a dollar in cuts for every dollar in debt-ceiling increase), and that is a major concession. On guns, it’ll be a hard one. But if Organizing for America gets kicked into high gear again, as we’re hearing it will from Robert Gibbs and others, then who knows. The NRA is mighty, but they haven’t even faced a fight in 15 years, so we don’t actually know how strong they are.

The conventional wisdom today is that compared to four years ago, this inaugural is a big so what. I disagree, and pretty passionately. One feels better about the economy, which was just terrifying four years ago. And more than that, one suspects Obama has learned some valuable things in these past four years about the powers of his office (and its limits), and about the nature of his loony but increasingly self-marginalizing opposition. I guess we’ll start finding out at noon Monday.