One of the especially striking aspects of Obama’s agenda-setting Second Inaugural address was its treatment of the entitlements question. His speech offered the sort of full-throated celebration of America’s real, existing social-welfare system that has not been heard from a U.S. president in decades—possibly since the Sixties.
No surprises in that: at least, none for anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to Obama’s lifetime of work and thought. But there was an ominous turn in the president’s rhetorical flourishes as well. For the president also fired an unmistakable warning shot: He signaled that he is in no mood to listen to criticism of our entitlement programs over the next four years.
Here is what he said:
We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Now, we all know that inaugural speeches are meant to be heavy on vision and light on detail. Yet the vision of the American welfare state presented by the president is utterly idealized. Not even a nod to the notion that there may be trouble in our entitlement paradise.
More disturbing still is the “let’s shut down this debate” tone of the president’s formulation. (We are not a nation of takers — got that? Now, let’s move on . . .)
The change in tone is significant. We are, evidently, no longer in the “if you have a better idea, let me hear it” phase of the Obama presidency.
Remember “mend it, don’t end it”? That was the Clinton administration’s slogan for dealing with dysfunction in the U.S. welfare system. Don’t expect to be hearing anything like that from Obama.
The new stance is: There is nothing in the entitlements archipelago that needs mending. Got that?
— Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.