Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


How will conservatives view Obama’s speech?

I tried to imagine anything  President Obama said causing someone who didn’t start out with the same goals to give them a fresh look.

Liberals had much to celebrate in President Obama's inaugural address, but will anything he said cause conservatives to give him a fresh look?

Maybe I’m having a bad ear day, but President Obama’s inaugural address did not move me much.

Personally, I embrace most of the center-left goals and policy preferences he expressed. None of them were new or surprising. Some liberals were thrilled just to hear him declare them so openly. But I tried to imagine anything Obama said causing someone who didn’t start out with the same goals to give them a fresh look. I’ll wait for evidence to the contrary, but I didn’t hear it.

Obama’s occasional efforts, in the form of an introductory phrase, to reassure any righties who are still listening to him that he is not a card-carrying Bolshevik, inevitably led to a conclusion that he is a collectivist. For example:

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. But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

Article continues after advertisement

… We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.

Or this one:

We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But 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. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.

I dearly hope that some on the right will make a new, sincere effort to find common ground or ground for compromise that will reduce the gridlock in Washington. But I fear otherwise.

Jonah Gold, writing for National Review, was in the otherwise camp. He translated the formulations above, thusly:

In other words, the old platitudes I just paid lip service to — and which continue to poll well — can now only be realized by embracing their philosophical opposite. In this case, individual freedom through collective action! Progressives have been trying to pull off this bait-and-switch for a century. New challenges are always requiring new responses that always require more government and less fidelity to established constitutional principles.

Charles Krauthammer, providing instant reaction for Fox declared: “This speech today was an ode to big government. It was a hymn to big government.”

Others liked the speech much better, so allow me to quote a couple:

Andrew Sullivan for the Daily Beast:

Article continues after advertisement

What he was saying, in other words, is that he is not interested in answering for all time the fundamental question of the role of government — because that question is simply not answerable for all time. We will never answer it definitively. Because it is one of humankind’s greatest and deepest questions. At the same time, we live in a specific time with specific issues and new questions — and the difference between an ideologue and a statesman is that a statesman’s job is not to bang on forever about “freedom” or “equality” in the abstract (we can leave that to Fox and MSNBC), but to make the right prudential judgments in the moment, with limited knowledge, as best he can, in the interests of all of us.

James Fallows at

I was expecting an anodyne tone-poem about healing national wounds, surmounting partisanship, and so on. As has often been the case, Obama confounded expectations — mine, at least. Four years ago, when people were expecting a barn-burner, the newly inaugurated president Obama gave a deliberately downbeat, sober-toned presentation about the long challenges ahead. Now — well, it’s almost as if he has won re-election and knows he will never have to run again and hears the clock ticking on his last chance to use the power of the presidency on the causes he cares about. If anyone were wondering whether Obama wanted to lower expectations for his second term … no, he apparently does not.

Lastly, satirist Andy Borowitz of the New Yorker seems to have a reaction similar to mine, but instead of getting all sad and  pitiful, Borowitz went for what he does best, mockery, pretending to have reaction quotes from Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

“My big fear was that the speech would be full of vague platitudes that wouldn’t be helpful to us in plotting against him,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Once he started offering details of what he actually hoped to accomplish, though, I realized we had hit the mother lode.”

Speaker Boehner praised the President for citing such specifics as hiring math and science teachers, building roads, and reducing health-care costs: “Now that we know that’s what he’s got in mind for his second term, we can hit the ground running to stop him.”

“My takeaway from the speech was, if we work hard enough, there’s nothing we can’t keep him from doing,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) praised Mr. Obama for injecting humor into a usually somber address: “I loved that joke about ending political name-calling.”