By Fred Barnes
President Obama wants more government. In his second inaugural address, he masked the message with phrases like “collective action” and doing “things together.” But these were stand-ins-euphemisms, really-for a bigger and more ambitious federal government. That’s the unmistakable goal of his second term, and his inaugural address was devoted to his determination to achieve it.
Mr. Obama paid lip service to reducing “the size of our deficit.” This was followed by a crucial “but” as he went on to defend a series of programs he is unwilling to cut, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. “These things do not sap our initiative,” he declared. “They strengthen us.”
In effect, Mr. Obama endorsed the entire liberal agenda as the guiding star of his next four years in the White House. He reached out to various interest groups in the Democratic coalition-gays, minorities, feminists, the poor, immigrants. But to Republicans, he offered nothing, not even a vague desire to meet them halfway or reach bipartisan agreements on taxes, spending or anything else.
So there won’t be a “grand bargain” in Mr. Obama’s second term. As for the looming debt crisis, the president didn’t give it so much as an anxious nod. His mind was on growing government.
The speech should debunk two myths about Mr. Obama and his presidency, both trumpeted by liberal commentators and Democratic activists. One is that the president is really a pragmatist and a centrist. Not so. Only an ideologically committed liberal could have delivered the address that Mr. Obama did.
The other myth is that Mr. Obama is eager to compromise with Republicans but has faced unprecedented obstructionism on their part. The speech told a different tale. It showed the president bent on pursuing an agenda with few if any sweeteners for Republicans.
The highly partisan theme was a departure from recent second inaugural addresses. In 2005, George W. Bush talked about spreading freedom and touched on national unity and healing. In 1997, Bill Clinton called for “a government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less.” In 1973, Richard Nixon emphasized peace. In 1985, Ronald Reagan advocated “steps to permanently control government’s power to tax and spend.” (See Notable & Quotable nearby.)
If there is a model for Mr. Obama’s speech, it is FDR’s famous inaugural address in 1937, when he unabashedly extolled government. “Democratic government has the innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable,” FDR declared. Mr. Obama was less explicit, but his emphasis was on the virtues of government.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. For nearly two years, Mr. Obama has been touting government programs (except defense) while criticizing Republicans as morally deficient in their demands for reductions in spending. At a news conference a week ago, he said Republicans “have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research.”
Indeed, the merits of government and the heartlessness of Republicans were the chief talking points of Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign. And while he muffled those themes in his address, he didn’t abandon them.
“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,” he said. Who might those cruel rejectionists be? Mr. Obama’s implication was clear-they’re Republicans.
And “some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science” about global warming, the president said, but “none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.” He didn’t identify the anti-science “some,” but it’s an easy guess whom he had in mind.
The day before the inaugural speech, the president’s senior political adviser, David Plouffe, laid out Mr. Obama’s strategy for defeating Republicans. On CNN, Mr. Plouffe claimed that Republicans in Washington are a “barrier to progress” and “out of the mainstream.” He contrasted them with “Republicans in the country who are seeking compromise, seeking balance.”
There’s no empirical basis for this supposed gap in the GOP ranks. But Mr. Obama and his aides would like to create one by driving a wedge between Republicans. The Democrats will first need a better understanding of the opposition: Republicans in Washington are more attuned to compromise than those outside.
A hardy perennial of Obama speeches is an expression of wariness about government. “We have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone,” he said in his inaugural address. But the speech contradicted this claim, since practically all the solutions it stressed were government ones.
Mr. Obama also likes to refer to obsolete programs-“We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time”-without citing any in particular for extinction.
And there was another bit of misdirection-a classic Obama rhetorical trick-in the address. “Progress does not compel us to settle the centuries-long debate about the role of government for all time,” he said, “but it does require us to act in our time.” Practically every word of his second inaugural speech said that Mr. Obama knows precisely what the role of government should be: a big one.
Mr. Barnes is the executive editor of the Weekly Standard.
Source: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL