For those of us who see Barack Obama as an exceptional President, it’s grating to listen to claims that he’s a “liberal Reagan” or possibly another Roosevelt. FDR’s inaugural performances made no serious effort to prepare America for war or world leadership. And Reagan’s rhetoric assured that all the big problems were simple and had been over-intellectualized.
It will take time to feel sure that Obama’s speech was effective politically, and that it intelligently spoke to our times. Yesterday, however, may have given us a real flavor of the relaxed affability and hopefulness that reigned in Washington when Jack Kennedy spoke on January 20, 1961.
Obama’s Camelot doesn’t include a famous biographer and liberal historian, a Boston machine, a demanding father, or a team of technical advisors brainstorming just north of Cuba and in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, a beautiful family again occupies the White House; another impeccably dressed hipster is convinced that good things can be done in government.
Obama’s planners, the polls, and nearly a million citizens on the National Mall confirm that the clouds are thinning, that purposeful reform rather than constant fire-fighting may now be possible.
Michael Kinsley caught a touch of Kennedy over-reach:
“The president said, ‘This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience.’ It has? If so, it sure caught me napping. I think we are fairly untested, and it’s hard to share the president’s optimism. But he gets paid to be optimistic."
Lincoln spoke of America’s “better angels” in the midst the industrial world’s first gigantic blood bath. It’s wise for a President to complement the people when he can. And not just warn that he’ll be testing them again.
Kennedy insisted extravagantly that Americans would “pay any price” to assure the survival and success of liberty. Shortly, he introduced the biggest tax cut in US history. Obama only asked that they keep taking their medicine in good cheer. After all, he knows that more will be asked of them.
Newt Gingrich offered the most significant praise so far:
“I thought it was very, very good,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who ran unsuccessfully for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. “I didn’t think it was very liberal. There were one or two sentences obviously conservatives would object to, but 95 percent of the speech I thought was classically American, emphasizing hard work, emphasizing self-reliance, emphasizing doing things together. I thought it was a good speech. My newsletter tomorrow, I’m actually going to send out the whole text of the speech.”
Gingrich is even-handed: he doesn’t like other Republican leaders any less than he doesn’t like Democrats. What may have impressed him was how furiously Obama keeps provoking Republican extremists while, at the same time, offering shelter to that crucial minority of Republican moderates in Congress, dress-rehearsing for the 2014 Congressional and the 2016 Presidential elections.
Whether big deals on immigration, social benefits, guns, and tax loopholes are cut in Congress or not, Obama has delivered to Tea Partiers and Neo-Cons a whole series of policy statements that appeal to majorities in swing states and districts—positions they’ll insist, nevertheless, on decrying.
America is “ending,” and not trying to win two wars. America will not act only according to its own conscience. Rather, it will “remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe.”
Obama goes beyond talking about equality of opportunity and asserts that the “country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” Wow. There’s an observation that prophets of revolution and now profiteers in America’s greatest business both accept.
A few months ago, Mitt Romney and other Republican pragmatists thought they could get away with calling that "socialism." Today, they’ll keep quiet and probably underline numerous passages in Obama’s speech that offer “partial” victories that they could share in as moderate conservatives.