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January 25, 2013 7:06 pm
After Barack Obama’s inauguration address, supporters, opponents, and the Washington commentariat alike grappled to describe his speech, before many finally settled on one word – “liberal”.
Democrats have long squirmed in the face of such descriptions and Mr Obama did not mention the word – nor has he, or the White House, embraced it since his Monday address.
The inauguration is the first act in a two-act play, with the lengthier State of the Union address in early February the traditional forum for laying out in detail the president’s policy platform.
But nonetheless, Mr Obama’s purposeful defence of government and explicit backing of gay rights marked a moment that was Reaganesque in its ambition to remould the parameters of US politics.
Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, said the Obama speech recalled Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration, in that both men used the occasion to lay down a defiant and succinct definition of their political philosophy.
In 1981, Mr Reagan articulated, and set in stone, the conservative view that thrives to this day: that “government is not the solution to our problem– government is the problem”.
Mr Obama turned that on its head, asserting that government programmes for pensions and healthcare, far from shackling America, provide the kind of foundation that allowed the economy and society to thrive.
Compared with his first inauguration in 2009, when the US economy was in crisis and large numbers of its military were still deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Obama took the podium carrying confidence and vindication from his re-election.
Certainly, Republicans are feeling the chill, staging a tactical retreat this week on using the debt ceiling to force budget cuts and, for the moment, avoiding a fight that damaged them deeply in 2011.
John Boehner, the Republican House speaker, said this week that in the next 22 months the White House would “attempt to annihilate the Republican party” and “just shove us into the dustbin of history”.
Mr Reagan seemed to have a similar impact on the Democrats at times in the 1980s and Mr Obama has cited the late Republican president when discussing the impact he wants to have in office.
“But his references to Reagan have not been ideological but respectful to someone who was a transformative president,” Mr Beschloss said.
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Ken Duberstein, a former Reagan chief of staff who was called into the White House two years ago to talk with Mr Obama about the former president after the Democrats’ drubbing in the 2010 midterm elections, was less enamoured with the comparison.
“Mr Obama seemed to be preaching to his choir, not to all choirs,” he said. “Mr Reagan had a conservative philosophy but he was always focused on the art of the possible and what he could get done.”
For others, the comparison is apt for precisely that reason, as both masked their pragmatic natures with ideological stances.
“Mr Reagan drew sharp and firm lines and took very conservative positions and then cut deals,” said Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute think-tank, adding that Mr Obama would like to do the same.
Labelling Mr Obama a liberal is problematic on one level, as Republicans have embedded the word with such pejorative connotations that it struggles to retain meaning outside US political debates.
Within the US, the word is associated with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal economic policies, which embraced a strong role for government, and the social revolution of the seventies, spanning women’s and gay rights.
For decades, Republicans as far back as Richard Nixon have pushed the view that Democrats were too socially liberal for the mainstream of the US electorate.
For two generations, non-traditional social values have been asserted against the majority but the views of that majority have now shifted dramatically
- Bill Galston, Brookings Institution
In 1973, in the early hours of the morning of his second inauguration, Mr Nixon’s adviser, Charles Colson, later jailed for obstruction of justice, phoned the president to tell him of new research on the Democrats. The Democrats, Mr Colson said, were supported only by “blacks”, “the poor” and the “lavender shirt mob – homos and queers”. Mr Nixon added: “And the intellectuals.”
Bill Galston, of the Brookings Institution think-tank, who worked for the Clinton administration, said there was a certain “rugged truth” in Mr Colson’s crude definition of the Democratic base.
But the electorate’s views, and the political calculation that has evolved alongside them, have changed dramatically in the Democrats’ favour, as the US has become more liberal.
“For two generations, non-traditional social values have been asserted against the majority but the views of that majority have now shifted dramatically,” Mr Galston said.
George McGovern, the Democratic candidate running against Mr Nixon in 1972, gained only 38 per cent of the vote.
But, said Mr Galston: “The 38 per cent that McGovern was speaking to in 1972 has now become the 51 per cent.”
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