The Agenda

Quick Thoughts on the Inaugural Address

I’m glad that I read President Obama’s Inaugural Address in lieu of listening to it live. Back in 2004, after his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Sun arguing that Barack Obama was more left-wing than was commonly understood at the time. Specifically, I made the case that he saw the public sector as the prime vehicle for the values of solidarity and community in American life. And in this most recent speech, the president collapsed the distinction between collective action and government action again and again, very much in keeping with social-democratic thinking.

As Noam Scheiber explains, the president has come to understand — rather late in the game — that his understanding of what solidarity ought to look like is not universally shared. Earlier in his career, Obama believed that there was an underlying public consensus beneath the spectacle of rancorous ideological combat:

Put simply: We basically agree on the need for good jobs, reliable health care, quality education, and a dignified retirement, and for a role for government in all of the above. The only reason it’s not happening is that people sometimes get distracted by the bloodsport that is politics. Just end the bloodsport, and the problems would very nearly solve themselves. Or as Obama put it in his first inaugural: “[W]e come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

What Obama has learned over the past four years is that we don’t actually agree on that much. A lot of people—a huge chunk of the country, in fact—emphatically disagree him. It turns out that the bloodsport aspect of politics isn’t so much a cause of our dysfunction. It’s largely an effect—an extension of the fact that people have really strong feelings on both sides of these questions. And if you want to win some of them over, it’s not enough to raise the level of political discourse and treat one another with more civility. You’ve got to change how people feel about the underlying questions of policy and values. You’ve got to explain to them why too much income inequality is counterproductive and why the safety net is indispensable.  

The problem is that the president fails to understand the nature of the underlying disagreement, as do most of his allies. Noam writes:

Pre-2011, Obama would suggest that the need for “a basic measure of security and dignity” was a matter of consensus and then fulminate against the procedural hurtles to realizing it. Since then, he’s been much more aware of the fact that tens of millions of people disagree with what he regards as a commonsense role for government, and he’s been much more focused on defending it. Today he explained 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.” He added that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security don’t “sap our initiative,” as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would have it. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Those are simple enough points, but they’re powerful and can’t be made enough. [Emphasis added]

Yet Romney and Ryan were both defenders of the safety net, albeit a different and more restrained vision of the safety net. Left-of-center observers tend to see support for Medicare among Republicans as self-serving hypocrisy. What they fail to appreciate is that most conservatives believe that there is a place for the safety net, but that this safety net ought to be made fiscally sustainable and that the expansion of the safety net really can “sap our initiative” if, for example, it punishes work. It is a commonplace among policy scholars that the “implicit marginal tax rates” created by means-tested anti-poverty programs can have perverse effects.

There is no question that some of President Obama’s critics would prefer to eliminate rather than modernize old-age social insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security, at least as a first best option. This is a big and diverse country. But Romney and Ryan certainly didn’t take that view, and I doubt that you’d find many House Republicans who’d take it either.

It is true, however, that Republicans have failed to craft a compelling domestic policy agenda that reflects the ideological conservatism and operational centrism of the American electorate. Conservatives need to find a way to reconcile support for a sustainable safety net with their convictions about limited government and the central importance of civil society, and that is exactly what people like Ryan are trying to do. But until that happens, we can expect more inaugural addresses like this one.

And there is another thing to keep in mind, which is that President Obama’s reelection means that the American state will henceforth operate from a new baseline. The principle of universal, or rather near-universal, medical coverage has been established, and conservatives will either have to make a robust case for why and how we ought to move away from this principle or find an alternative strategy for achieving the goal of universal coverage. Part of me thinks that this is the most consequential aspect of the Obama presidency. Another part of me thinks that the the pre-ACA status quo represented an unstable equilibrium, and that we’d either wind up with an ACA-style four-tranche system of universal coverage (also unstable) or a more conservative-friendly alternative built around universal catastrophic coverage (possibly more stable) regardless. But I guess the question is now moot.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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