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The Era of Obamaism

(MinnPost asked several Minnesota leaders and public-policy experts to share their thoughts on Inauguration Day and the Barack Obama presidency. To read more of their responses, click here.)

Much has been made of the historic nature of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first African-American president. Centuries of Americans have literally fought for this moment to occur. It is a singular moment; the election of a racial minority by the majority is probably impossible in today’s France, Germany, Britain, and other closely allied countries. Among Americans and the community of nations, Obama’s inauguration opens a new era and creates new opportunities.

Three elements of Obama’s inauguration have received less attention and may come to define the distinctiveness of the Obama era. 

In one of the more theatrical moments, the incoming president recognized his predecessor’s service as a prelude to sharply demolishing his record and the Hatfield-McCoy battles between conservatism and liberalism that came to define the Bush presidency as well as others since Ronald Reagan’s. Noting that the “ground has shifted,” Obama set aside generations of disputes over the size of government, the degree of deference to private markets, and the counterposing of national security against civil liberties and multilateralism as “stale political arguments.”  Obama’s claim that the battles between liberalism and conservatism “no longer apply” is audacious and will be tested in the coming months. Eloquent in what he wants to bury, Obama was vague, however, about what would replace them. Time will tell whether Obama is able to fashion a new synthesis. My own hunch is that America’s philosophical beliefs are more complex than the reigning ideologies but also more deeply set and not nearly as avoidable as the new president suggests.

Even as he sought to move past the older ideological battles, Obama introduced a second theme of redistribution that has more than a faint resemblance to liberalism. He praised the private market for “its power to generate wealth and expand freedom,” but then he put it on notice to expect a “watchful eye” to ensure that it doesn’t “spin out of control.” He praised prosperity, but artfully put the prosperous on notice that the incoming administration will focus on the “reach” of prosperity and will “extend opportunity to every willing heart.” More generally, Obama’s inaugural anchored itself in honoring and paying back (perhaps literally) the “men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”

This brings us to Obama’s third theme — a revival of citizen populism. The inauguration and activities leading up to it heralded the “price and the promise of citizenship.” Recognizing and fostering community empowerment, the president suggested, is a necessary step to fostering “a new era of responsibility.” But the inauguration also reveals a critical component of Obama’s approach to presidential power.

Teddy Roosevelt coined the term “bully pulpit” to describe presidential appeals over the heads of Washington powerbrokers to stir up public support for themselves and their policies. Over time, presidents have played up the potential for “bullying” members of Congress and others by bringing down the wrath of an outraged public. The record numbers that attended Tuesday’s inaugural — perhaps 2 million — were on full display in front of members of Congress and other powerbrokers. Be sure that the Obama administration will remind legislators and others of this popular outpouring. The millions who showed up today are an initial down payment on the administration’s plans to use grass-roots organizing and the Internet to browbeat its opponents.

Inaugural addresses live on when they define an era, adding logic and coherence to what can seem at the time as a confusing flurry of activity. Twenty-eight years ago, Reagan used his inauguration to signal a new era by declaring that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” This motif was so compelling in describing the country’s political distrust and subsequent efforts to reduce taxes and regulations that Democratic President Bill Clinton famously declared in his 1996 State of the Union Address that “The era of big government is over.” 

Obama’s plans are audacious. Whether Obama’s inaugural address has an enduring hold on American political thought and debate will depend on its ability to add clarity to events just over the horizon.  

Lawrence R. Jacobs is the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota.

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