His first term will be remembered for a lot of things — health-care reform and the killing of Osama bin Laden, to be sure — but also a culture of partisan intransigence in Washington and a toxic, anger-driven politics beyond it.
Here’s Obama’s call to action and civility, from his speech as prepared for delivery:
For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
When President Obama took office, he entered with an agenda that included reforms to health care, energy, and education as his three main goals. He accomplished only one of them.
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At the outset of his second term, it appears likely that Congress will act on immigration reform, as Republicans have signaled they intend to compromise. Democrats will push gun control as another big-ticket item, with prospects for passage unclear.
But Obama’s speech seemed aimed more directly at the culture of disagreement that has been noted by just about all the pundits who’ve been in Washington long enough to remember when times were different, not to mention the pundits who haven’t. Obama and Democrats have repeatedly criticized Republicans for the spectacle of alleged show-votes, like the House-passed bill to repeal Obama’s health care law. Republicans, meanwhile, have criticized the White House as unbending and fake in its outreach to Republicans on big issues.
While that culture developed in Washington, it was accompanied by a more vicious temperament in Obama’s activist opposition, which bloomed just a few months after he was first sworn in, with the April 15 tea-party rallies in 2009. Conservatives (and some wingnuts, not really embraced by the movement) called Obama a “socialist,” a “snob,” an “elitist,” a “Muslim,” and a “Kenyan” — all quite openly, at rallies. The antiwar left had smeared George W. Bush as a “Nazi” and a “war criminal,” as conservatives have often pointed out, but the anti-Obama ire, said his supporters, reached new levels. Hence, perhaps, the reference to “name-calling.”
After a divisive national campaign backing their nominee, Mitt Romney, Republicans have congratulated Obama on his second inauguration. Tension and animosity, for now, seem to have abated. But with a fight looming over the debt ceiling, it doesn’t appear likely that Obama’s call will immediately close the fissures that have grown over his first four years.