President Obama launched into his second term with a sharply worded inaugural address Monday — using the platform to “reject” steep cuts to entitlements, press for an immigration reform package and wag the finger at Washington’s penchant for “name-calling” and “spectacle.”
The 20-minute address, delivered to a packed crowd on the National Mall after he took the oath of office, effectively set the tone for the next four years. After a rocky four years marked by bitter battles between the White House and Republicans in Congress, Obama made clear he would continue to press those lawmakers to move toward him on some of the toughest policy questions ahead.
The president quickly toggled through a host of agenda items, but used some of his most forceful language to defend costly entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that could be the target of cuts in upcoming fiscal talks.
Declaring that the country cannot succeed “when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” he described those programs as a vital safety net — though, without some intervention, budget forecasters warn they will not be sustainable in the long term.
“We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” Obama said. “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
While setting his terms for looming budget fights, the president also worked in a call for immigration reform.
“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country,” he said.
Further outlining his goals for a second term, he said the administration would “respond to the threat of climate change.”
The president, in closing, appeared to chide the minority party, saying: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
At the same time, he urged the country to set aside differences and work together toward addressing challenges ranging from the country’s tax code to its education system.
“Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people,” Obama said, on the west front of the Capitol. “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”
Obama, over the course of the speech, appeared to offer a series of assurances to his supporters that he would continue to fight for the issues he campaigned on. However, while Obama was buoyed by his decisive win over Mitt Romney in November, he nevertheless enters the second term facing a packed agenda and a divided Congress he’ll have to win over if he wants to get it passed.
For the president, the second term essentially began after Election Day, when he started negotiating with congressional Republicans on the fiscal crisis. However, it took a tragic yet pivotal turn Dec. 14 when a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults inside a Connecticut elementary school.
Obama, within days, vowed to find at least some measure to curb gun violence. And last week, the 44th president announced the details of his plan, which includes an assault-weapons ban, limiting magazines to 10 rounds, background checks for prospective buyers and extending mental health treatment to young Americans.
His near-term legislative agenda will encompass both the gun-control issue as well as renewed talks with House Republicans over three pressing fiscal matters: the debt ceiling, massive cuts to federal spending and a budget resolution.
With all of those challenges, though, Obama faces the task of bridging the divide with Congress. Partisan lines, as a result of the November elections, appeared only to harden, with Democrats locking down control of the Senate and Republicans doing likewise in the House. Washington was able to craft a last-minute deal to avert the fiscal crisis at the start of 2013, but the deal merely kicked off the big decisions — on entitlements, on tax reform — for another day. In the first year of Obama’s second term, it should be clear whether Washington will start to make those decisions, or continue to punt.
More immediately, Obama has stated that Congress must increase the debt ceiling to keep the country from defaulting on its bills and that he will not negotiate on the issue. However, the White House has already put Congress on notice that budget talks could be delayed because Obama will miss the legal Feb. 14 deadline to submit his plan.
Despite having to deal with those issues right away, Obama appears committed to addressing immigration reform in the early months, purportedly in a one-step, comprehensive package.
Still, the expected partisan wrangling must wait until after Monday.
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