Republican President Ronald Reagan declared in 1981 that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Fifteen years later, Democratic President Bill Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over.” That wasn’t exactly President Barack Obama’s message in his second inaugural address on Monday.
In a spirited defense of government’s role as a protector of society’s most vulnerable people, the Democratic president signaled a determination to protect costly social programs that have been targeted by Republicans seeking to reduce growth in the $ 16.4 trillion US debt.
In a series of implied jabs at uncompromising conservatives who have fostered gridlock in Congress and cast him as an un-American socialist, Obama essentially portrayed such critics as being outside the mainstream of US politics. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” Obama said during his 18-minute speech.
Laying out a broad vision for his second four-year term, Obama delivered a speech that struck many of the themes that ran through his re-election campaign.
Chief among them: A call to increase opportunities for the middle class and “reject the idea that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.” Such comments struck a nerve with some Republicans, who saw them as a sign that Obama might be unwilling to make significant cuts to the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs and the Social Security retirement program — and that the president might seek more tax increases on the nation’s richest people.
Cutting back on those “entitlement” programs is widely viewed as a significant part of reducing the budget deficit. “It was a speech outlining vigorous support for expanding the size and reach of government — at a time when there is a national call for, and bipartisan support of, reduced Washington spending,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader.
Obama begins his second term having stared down Republicans on tax and spending issues at the end of December, achieving a deal that raised taxes on the country’s highest earners.
The stage is now set for the next round of fiscal wrangling: Obama wants to revamp the tax code to eliminate a myriad tax loopholes while fending off Republicans’ demands for deep spending cuts.
His graying hair and lined face providing proof, Obama appears battle-hardened after his first term, now accustomed to the idea that Republicans will fight him at nearly every turn and determined to muscle as much of his agenda as possible through the divided Congress.
In defending social programs, Obama offered a subtle reminder of comments last May by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who told supporters at a private fund-raiser that 47 percent of Americans were dependent on government programs and benefits, and therefore were unlikely to support Romney.
“The commitments we make to each other, through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us,” Obama said. “They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Such talk appeared to foreshadow more ideological fights in Congress over taxes and spending, which have consumed Washington during the past four years.
Obama seemed to claim a far-reaching mandate in his inaugural address, vowing action on issues such as climate change, immigration and gay rights.
Those issues were largely on the sidelines during most of Obama’s first term, although he did express support for legalized same-sex marriage.
An agreement to revamp the immigration system seems the most likely bipartisan achievement. Obama wants such a deal and so do Republicans in Congress, after having seen Hispanics vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats in the Nov. 6 election. Far less certain is how Obama might follow through on his pledge to address climate change in a significant way.
“He laid out a very activist agenda,” said presidential scholar Thomas Alan Schwartz of Vanderbilt University. “My interpretation would be that he really does feel that the wind is at his back, that he has a very favorable environment to push right now on a wide range of issues.” Republicans listening for clues as to what to expect from Obama in the coming months did not hear much conciliatory talk.