If a Republican president had been speaking, there would have been paragraph after paragraph about tackling the deficit, the sapping evil of the federal government, and the danger the country’s mounting debt poses to personal liberty. Obama barely mentioned the deficit. When he did, it was to warn against excessive spending reductions. The president passed by the deficit on his way to making a larger point about government spending.
Obama said, “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.” This is familiar language he uses when dealing with Republicans — and they rightly hear it that way.
Obama took a swipe at the usual GOP suspects. Conjuring House Republicans — perhaps his most obvious target — he said, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” On the issue of climate change, first-term President Obama might have called on lawmakers to reason together. Not this time. He framed the issue — which faltered in his first term in part because of Democratic opposition — by essentially calling his opponents flat-earthers: ”Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms,” he said.
And there was this code, straight from the bitterest of the campaign fights. “They do not make us a nation of takers,” said the president, referring to the entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.” It was Paul Ryan whose talk about “takers who feed off the government and don’t pay taxes” became an issue during the presidential campaign. Ryan was also the author of the premium support plan for Medicare that the president campaigned against.
Afterward during his lunch with congressional leaders, the president sounded a note of humility, saying, “The longer you are (in the office of the presidency), the more humble you become.” But there was none of this personal humility in his remarks on the Mall. If the president was in a mood to reach out to Republicans, he had no interest in making it part of the day’s big event.
If the president’s message wasn’t aimed at making common cause with Republicans, he was reaching out to the country. He hinted at a new kind of citizen activism — not votes but voices. “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift.” This was a speech for “we the people” — a phrase he returned to repeatedly — not “we the lawmakers.”
This partisan edge is in keeping with the new freedom the president is feeling. He had coffee with Republican leaders before the inauguration and talked about collective action and unity, but he doesn’t seem to be in a schmoozing mood. According to various White House aides — and the president himself — striving for comity just isn’t going to do him much good when it comes to getting things done. It’s not going to change minds in the House Republican caucus. Given that, the president has a low opinion of how much he can accomplish by making deals with John Boehner. As one White House adviser put it, speaking of the House speaker, “He’s a nice guy, but he can’t lead anyone to a deal.”
Thus, the day was a preview of coming attractions. Expect the president to use his State of the Union, other big speeches and campaign organization to create outside pressure that will inspire Republicans to act. After Monday’s speech was over, the president sent a note to members of his political committee, now called Organizing for Action, thanking them and asking for their support in the months to come: “Now it’s time to finish what we started — let’s get going.”
The president’s second inauguration is what passes for unity these days; tomorrow the battles begin again.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.