More than any other recent U.S. president, Barack Obama has succeeded in puzzling the pundits. His imperturbability and coolly analytical style have led even such incisive commentators as Nicholas Lemann, David Bromwich, and Anthony Appiah to describe him as inscrutable, enigmatic, and impenetrable. These same characteristics have also polarized and galvanized his critics. The political right views Obama’s serene political persona as a mask for his sinister ambition to turn the United States into Scandinavia. The political left, which thought the nation had at last elected one of its own, has excoriated him as a centrist too timid to slay the Republican dragons that prowl the Capitol’s corridors.

It has been particularly fascinating to watch the seesawing of opinion on Obama in the past year. Often it seems that every day presents a new avalanche of commentary on the president’s performance, much of it devoted to sleuthing out backroom maneuvering in an attempt to explain what is happening. And yet perhaps because the cynicism that dominates contemporary political discourse militates against taking any politician’s words at face value, surprisingly little analysis is devoted to what the president actually says in his principal public addresses. Americans are so busy figuring out Obama, they have stopped hearing him.

The president’s official reelection campaign began at the Democratic Party’s convention in Charlotte, where critics compared his tepid speech unfavorably to the barnburner delivered by Bill Clinton the night before. (They overlooked the point of Clinton’s speech, which was to laud the undervalued achievements of Obama’s first term.) But Obama’s worst moment in the campaign came during the fall, in the first debate, when, in a jarring lurch to the center, the self-proclaimed “severely conservative” Mitt Romney calmly repudiated views he had espoused for two years. Obama, either caught off-guard or confident that voters would recoil from Romney’s slipperiness, did little more than restate his positions on the issues. His supporters were disappointed at his failure to express outrage, and their dissatisfaction became the story of the debate. No matter how many newspaper articles detailed the glaring discrepancies between Romney’s earlier speeches and his debate claims, the narrative was set: President Obama, once again too passive in the face of determined opposition, was now officially In Trouble.

In the second and third debates, pundits agreed that the president spoke with more energy and determination. Few seemed to notice that he was making exactly the same arguments about domestic and foreign policy that he had made in the first debate—indeed, the same ones he had run on in 2008. The stories described instead how the president had “seized the initiative” and “gone on the attack,” highlighting Romney’s notorious and damaging Boca Raton speech about the “dependent” 47 percent. Now, and for the rest of the campaign, it was Romney who was In Trouble—a judgment vindicated on election night.

Magnanimity comes easily to winners, so perhaps Obama’s victory speech that night should have come as no surprise. Even so, his remarks were noteworthy for their generosity toward Republicans and for his plea to all Americans to appreciate the fact of our many common commitments and the grandeur of our democratic means of settling disputes. Acknowledging the stridency of the campaign, the president observed that citizens in nations struggling to establish self-government would rejoice at the freedom to argue that Americans take for granted. He acknowledged the deep differences between Democrats and Republicans, yet concluded that “we are not as divided as our politics suggests,” and reiterated the theme that has marked most of his major speeches ever since he burst into the nation’s consciousness at the Democratic National Convention in 2004: “We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.”

After the election Obama restated his hope that Republican legislators, freed from having to prevent his reelection, would now join with him to solve the nation’s problems. But the same electorate that chose Barack Obama and returned a Democratic majority to the Senate also ensured the continuation of divided government by preserving the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Eleventh-hour efforts to forge a bipartisan agreement on the tax cuts enacted under George W. Bush resulted only in modest increases for a sliver of the wealthiest and payroll tax hikes for most working Americans. Neither party could claim victory, though both tried their best.


WITH THE LATEST evidence of fractured government fresh in their minds, Americans awaited Barack Obama’s second inaugural address. A vast throng turned out to listen to the speech—a crowd so large, in fact, it was evidently exceeded in all of U.S. history only by the crowd at the same event four years before. Obama began his address by citing Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and its self-evident truths. Americans’ commitments to liberty and equality, said the president, make us who we are as a nation. He then invoked words from the most familiar of all second inaugurals. Echoing Lincoln’s references to blood drawn by the lash and by the sword, he deftly commemorated the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, both of which are—or should be—on the minds of all Americans a hundred fifty years after the end of slavery.

As he has so often throughout his career, the president made sure to celebrate “initiative and enterprise” and “hard work and responsibility.” For years the commentariat has dismissed Obama’s praise for entrepreneurs and the free-market economy as mere rhetoric. This is a mistake. Contrast his inaugural address with a speech by the only previous president to win reelection with the economy still sputtering from an inherited catastrophe. In 1936 Franklin D. Roosevelt indicted the “economic royalists” who had transformed free enterprise into “privileged enterprise” for the wealthy few. Political equality had become “meaningless in the face of economic inequality,” FDR charged, as “a small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control” over the property, money, labor, and lives of other citizens. Americans had to retake control from plutocrats trying to “hide behind the flag and the Constitution;” we had to remember that the United States stands for “democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection.”

Obama pointedly refused to follow FDR’s lead. Declining to indict the business community that had resisted his overtures for four years and shoveled money to Romney, he played only a very muted version of FDR’s populist anthem. Pledging to “remake our tax code” and protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the president insisted that “we, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.” Yet he did not specify how he proposed to tackle an economic inequality in the United States greater than at any time since the late nineteenth century—nor did he admit that the gulf between rich and poor had in fact widened during his first term in office. Instead the president struck his characteristic chord of moderation and conciliation. “Being true to our founding documents,” he declared, “does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way.”

But FDR was right. When inequality transforms politics into a game that only the wealthy can play, not only is the liberty of the people sacrificed, but American democracy itself is at risk. A century has passed since progressive reformers last successfully challenged an economic elite that used its wealth to buy power. FDR’s New Deal followed the lead of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, progressive reformers who fought the presidential contest of 1912 over the proper strategy for reining in the excesses of the industrialists and finance capitalists whose freedom spelled misery for millions.

It is true that in a democracy we may not all define liberty in exactly the same way. But the time has come to deny the validity of one definition of liberty—the one that entails exploiting workers by paying less than a living wage, or permanently damaging the environment to make a buck, or protecting the rights of gun owners at the cost of innocent citizens’ lives. As Obama correctly observed in his address, the power of government in a democracy should “free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Those are risks bounded by law. The United States was not created to enable individuals to do anything they wanted to do. It came into being in order to grant citizens precisely what the president described: “the power to set this country’s course.” Adams, Jefferson, and Madison all shared a conception of justice as the common good, not merely the sum of individual interests. In his first inaugural address, Obama proclaimed that America is “bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions.” That ideal of a shared public interest, he asserted, stands at the heart of the “most ancient values and enduring ideas.” Securing liberty—as the founding generation understood, and as too many generations since have been called to demonstrate on battlefields here and abroad—does in fact require what the president called “collective action.”

In American history, as in the Catholic tradition, the individual freedom prized by contemporary conservatives and liberals alike has always been bounded by the duties that democratic citizens owe one another. Only if the president insists that liberty still obligates every individual—from the wealthiest to the poorest, from opponents of fracking to hunters paying dues to the NRA—to shoulder the burdens we share in common, and only if he is able to translate that pledge into legislation, will his second term nudge the nation toward fulfilling its ideals. “Government in a modern civilization,” FDR reminded the nation in 1936, “has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens,” including “protection of the family and the home” and “the establishment of a democracy of opportunity.” Recent events have shown that the insecurity FDR targeted has returned to the United States—and not only to our vulnerable populations, clustered in cities, but to suburban cinemas and schools and the impoverished populations of America’s reddest states. Inequality has so constricted opportunity in the United States that citizens in most European nations now enjoy not only greater safety but also greater economic and social mobility than do Americans. The dramatic decision of Switzerland, hardly a hotbed of socialism, to adopt the Minder Initiative limiting executive compensation indicates the distance separating European from American social democracy.

The president in his first term often talked about his easy working relationship with his young chief speech writer, Jon Favreau, a Jesuit-trained political activist committed to Catholic conceptions of bounded liberty, community, and justice. Now that Favreau has left the White House, we shall see whether the president’s references to these themes persist. In a moving passage in Dreams from My Father, Obama recalls telling the devout Catholics with whom he worked as a community organizer in Chicago that his motives were not much different from theirs, a revelation that may help explain why he and Favreau worked together so seamlessly for so long. But the president is now at a crossroads. Will he continue fighting against the Republican creed of individualism, confronting plutocracy with the principles of democracy?


OBAMA'S NEXT MAJOR speech, the February 12 State of the Union address, was widely criticized as an uninspiring sequel to his stirring inaugural. Yet it is clear that the two speeches were conceived as parts of a whole—the inaugural providing the ideals, the SOTU the programs necessary to realizing them. The president proposed universal preschool education and new programs in high schools and community colleges to prepare students for work in the twenty-first-century economy. He proposed manufacturing hubs to spur the re-emergence of factories, using smart technology to lower production costs and create new jobs. He emphasized the importance of investing in clean energy and our crumbling infrastructure. He returned to the issue of the minimum wage, a crucial feature of any attempt to address the problem of growing inequality. Finally, in the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the president called for gun-control legislation of the sort he has long backed.

In both speeches Obama advanced arguments he has been making for almost a decade. As always, he couched those arguments not in the defiant terms of FDR, but in a conciliatory mode designed to promote bipartisan cooperation. Obama has consistently criticized his own party for refusing to consider reforms unpopular among Democratic voters. He is willing to use government funds to spark innovation in education, energy, and manufacturing, but equally willing to use the power of the market to nudge private investors in those directions. He is less interested in maintaining ideological orthodoxy than in solving problems, another leitmotif in his speeches that distinguishes him from many other Democrats. Though, unlike Bill Clinton, Obama is a committed egalitarian, his means—like Clinton’s—are those of a pragmatist more concerned with experimentation and results than with doctrinal purity. His preferred strategy for building support for his initiatives remains what it was in 2008, namely a grassroots effort to mobilize, individual by individual, a majority of voters behind these ideas, just as they were mobilized behind Obama himself in two elections.

A striking illustration of that strategy came in a press conference on March 1, the day sequestration took effect. This development, the consequence of an initiative thought to be so unpalatable that neither Republicans nor Democrats could accept it—and would thus agree to resolve their fiscal differences—resulted from the unexpected willingness of congressional Republicans to see the Defense Department budget cut by 13 percent in order to shave some dollars from the deficit. (At a moment when Republicans appear to be abandoning many of their positions on issues ranging from gay rights to immigration reform, rock-solid resistance to government spending seems the only position on which all in the party can agree.) And the president’s response? In the press conference he did not flinch from calling the cuts “dumb,” “arbitrary,” “unnecessary,” and “inexcusable,” and pointed out what all recent opinion polls have shown, that larger majorities of Americans oppose these cuts than favor shrinking the deficit (though many incoherently want both). But he also pledged to “continue to reach out” to Republicans to resolve the problem of the deficit and of rising costs, particularly in Medicare, if Republicans will agree to consider a “balanced” package that includes increasing revenues along with budget cuts.

The press conference also gave the president an opportunity to address the persistent question of whether he had done all he could to persuade the Republican-controlled Congress. He admitted that “the conventional wisdom” holds that “I should somehow convince them to do what’s right.” But how, exactly? By constitutional design the president lacks such leverage. Congressmen are independent, as Obama noted: “There’s no ‘special sauce’ to persuade them. All I can do is make the best possible argument.” A president can make concessions and offer compromises, but “can’t force Congress to do the right thing,” Obama reminded reporters. “I’m not a dictator. I’m the president.” In the end, the president placed his faith in the American people. Cynics would say that is because he knows polls show the majority is on his side, but his writings and speeches suggest that he genuinely believes that is how American democracy must work. In time, he predicted, “the common-sense and practical approach” of the electorate “will win out,” and Congress will “[come] to its senses.”

Though Obama’s press conference attracted little attention, his words deserve scrutiny, because they highlight a feature of American constitutionalism that the president appears to understand better than many of his critics. Obama has never—not even in his first two years in office—enjoyed the overwhelming congressional majorities that enabled FDR and Lyndon Johnson to override Republican opposition. Nor can he hope to use the chicanery, recently on display in the film Lincoln, that was standard among politicians in an earlier day. Any administration attempting to “persuade” members of Congress using the tactics Lincoln’s aides employed would be pilloried today, and deservedly so. Although popular fantasies of vast presidential power persist, the Capitol is not located in Hollywood, and the heroes of Aaron Sorkin’s and Steven Spielberg’s screenplays would not make it past today’s legislative hearings.


PERHAPS THE REPUBLICAN congressmen who have chosen sequestration over any increase in tax revenues expect the money extracted from the economy to be replaced by increased spending spun off from record Wall Street bonuses, skyrocketing CEO salaries, and record-high corporate profits. It’s true that sequestration will not hurt purveyors or purchasers of luxury goods. Rather, it is janitors at military bases, Head Start teachers, airport employees, and clerical workers in federal offices around the country who will feel the pinch—as will the already-struggling local grocery stores, car-repair shops, and diners that depend on their business. Apart from a few doctrinaire libertarian economists, bewitched by the specter of deficits and convinced that the United States has become Greece, no one considers sequestration good medicine for a recovering economy. Even the Economist and the Wall Street Journal describe the cuts as counterproductive.

In the face of polls showing that almost no Americans want these cuts, the readiness of the Republican leadership to accommodate its right-wing fringe testifies to the radicalism of today’s conservatives. At a time when Republican intransigence infuriates almost everyone in American politics except Tea Party true believers, Obama’s continued willingness to cooperate with his opponents can seem either superhuman or insane. His proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 has been greeted with dismay by many on the left, but is just the most recent example of that inclination. Especially disturbing to many Democrats is the president’s evident willingness to limit benefits to Social Security instead of asking those with higher incomes to contribute more (payroll deductions are capped at $113,700 a year). But Obama’s willingness to compromise has been his trademark throughout his political career. It has brought him both successes and failures—and for better or worse, there is no reason to expect it will change in the next three years.

In his inaugural address, the president insisted that we should not “mistake absolutism for principle” or “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” Agreed. But if he intends to make more progress against inequality in his second term than he did in his first, Obama will need to insist more forcefully that there is a distinction between two competing notions of liberty that are polarizing and obstructing our politics today. For many members of today’s radical right, liberty means only freedom from the power of the federal government. As Obama has noted over and over in his speeches, that is an impoverished and inaccurate understanding of our nation’s creed. A deeper, richer sense of that creed’s historical meaning emphasizes the importance of securing for every individual the real opportunity, including the necessary resources, to develop his or her potential.

At the close of his second inaugural, Obama exhorted us “with common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication...[to] answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future...[the] precious light of freedom.” Only if that freedom is effective, rather than merely abstract, said the president, can “we, the people” claim fidelity to our stated ideal of “liberty and justice for all.”

Those are fighting words. Time will tell whether this president is prepared to fight for them.

Published in the 2013-05-17 issue: 

James T. Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, is author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton) and Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford).

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