Barack Obama came to prominence as a champion of the idea that the elements dividing Americans are less meaningful than those uniting us — and that the real differences can be bridged. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” he proclaimed at the 2004 Democratic convention.
He returned to that theme in his second inaugural address Monday, asserting that what makes us Americans is our shared belief in the nation’s founding principles. He called on his listeners to advance those ideals “with common effort and common purpose.”
The speech was notable for its unapologetic defense of modern entitlements as perfectly consistent with basic American principles. “We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity,” he said. Government programs to combat poverty and assure health care “do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
It was also striking for its inward gaze. In 2009, Obama made a point of letting the rest of the world know that he intended to defeat our terrorist enemies and that the United States “must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.” The 2013 address touched only briefly on foreign policy, focusing instead on the need to make government programs work better at home.
It was a strong speech, which the president delivered with a hint of urgency. But today, unlike four years ago, Obama knows that his hope of overcoming partisan differences has not been realized and is not likely to be. Republicans and Democrats are more polarized than ever, and because neither has complete control of the levers of power, each can frustrate the other.
Obama’s second term was not preceded by the postelection honeymoon that presidents often enjoy. In fact, in the weeks since Nov. 6, the fighting intensified with the approach of the fiscal cliff, which was averted only at the last minute. It was replaced by sniping and posturing over the debt ceiling.
The prevailing tone in Washington has grown harsher on his watch, and the president is partly at fault. He has sometimes acted as though he is the only person who won a mandate from the voters. He and his GOP opposition in Congress often seem to confuse being intractable with being resolute.
Obama took the oath of office knowing he will have to fight for everything he hopes to achieve. What will that be? If he hopes to be judged favorably four years or 40 years from now, he needs to do some basic things.
One is to implement his signature health care reform in a way that is flexible, efficient and affordable. Another is to phase out the American military mission in Afghanistan without forfeiting the vital security gains of the past 11 years. He may have to take stronger action to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Looming over all these issues, however, is the inescapable obligation to put our fiscal house in order — a topic the president largely ignored on Monday. Since Obama took office, the total federal debt has risen by nearly $6 trillion — some of which was beyond his control and some of which wasn’t. If it rises by several trillion more over the next four years, a crippling debt may very well be his most durable legacy.
To have a successful second term, Obama needs to negotiate with Congress to restore fiscal balance. The differences between the parties don’t preclude such progress, but each side will have to swallow concessions it finds noxious.
Given the demographic pressures on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the government will need more revenue than it’s now taking in. But given the rising costs of those and other entitlement programs, changes will be needed to reduce future obligations. The obvious trade: Republicans agree to a simplified tax code that boosts revenue, while Democrats accept trimmed-down benefits.
Will that grand, painful bargain come to pass? Not without consistent, determined presidential leadership, and not without a willingness in both parties to compromise. But there is really no responsible option. Putting the nation on a sustainable fiscal path is essential to our long-term prosperity — as well as our ability to afford the sort of government commitments the president regards as indispensable.
For too many years, under both President Obama and President George W. Bush, our elected leaders have held out visions of great national progress, while indulging fiscal policies that limit our options and darken our future. Those in office over the next four years need to reverse that course. The time to start is now.