By Alan Bean
Presidential inaugurations are designed to draw the nation back together after a season of partisan bloodletting. As Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address, conservative jurists like Antonin Scalia and Texas Senator John Cornyn looked on grim-faced. Democracy is a team sport in which the other side often wins. When you lose you suck it up, adjust your game plan, and get ready for the next game.
Obama has often been compared to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., the two Americans most closely associated with the principle of racial equality. Like Lincoln and King, Obama wields the familiar cadences of our American civil religion in an effort to summon the better angels of our national nature, or at least the best angels on offer at the moment. Heralds of a new tomorrow, if they are wise, remind us of the journey we have been on and, in so doing, redefine the significance of that journey. Remember who you are. Remember who we are. We may have wandered into strange and dangerous valleys, but we were created for higher ground!
Like King and Lincoln, Obama is often derided as a compromiser, a man too willing to dance with the devil. It must feel strange to be denounced as a dangerous radical by the right and an opportunistic sell-out by the left. The truth doesn’t always lie midway between extremes but, in the rough and tumble of politics, that is often as close as we ever get.
Obama’s second inaugural address was much better than his first, largely because he no longer has to worry about winning re-election. Did you ever think you would hear a shout-out to gay America in an inaugural peroration? Neither did I. Yet there it was. Twice. I doubt Scalia and Cornyn liked Obama’s speech any more than he likes their work product. But these men must live with one another; that is the greatness of America. An unsatisfying sort of greatness, perhaps, but the only kind on offer.
I have been one of the president’s critics, not because I disagree with him, but because I suspect he sees the world much as I see it and yet refuses to act accordingly.
Why has Obama issued fewer pardons and commutations than any president on record?
Why has Obama allowed the Department of Justice to wage war on the medical marijuana industry while thousands of miscreants in the mortgage and financial industries are rarely investigated and almost never punished?
Why did we witness an obscene spike in deportation during Obama’s first term?
Why did the president so quickly abandon the public option during the health care debate?
In his position, I would have stuck to my guns. But that is one of the primary reasons why a person like me will never be elected president. President’s must serve as priests to our national civil religion; they cannot afford to be prophets. They can lay wreaths at the tombs of fallen saints, but their personal saintliness must be strictly curtailed. Saints and prophets don’t win elections, even under the most remarkable circumstances.
I have a prophetic calling. I rarely have the courage to live in accordance with this calling, but it is my calling all the same. Barack Obama is a politician and that means getting elected and stay elected. The results aren’t always pretty and they don’t always make for great oratory. Even prophets don’t get to say everything they believe to be true; the tongues of politicians are creased with bite marks. The best Saturday Night Live sketches are funny because our national leaders are made to say what everyone suspects they believe. We laugh with relief.
Still, candor has its place, and today we saw about as much of that rare bird as we are ever likely to glimpse on the national stage. Barack Obama spoke like the pragmatic liberal he has always been. He broke into national politics at the 2004 Democratic convention with his soaring One America speech, and this vision continues to drive his policies.
But Obama faces an opposition determined to oppose him as a matter of principle, even when he is desperate to compromise. There’s nothing personal about this recalcitrant opposition; it’s rooted in cynical political calculation. Obama’s second inaugural suggests that he no longer expects his opposition to meet him half way on anything. This may sound like a recipe for continued gridlock, but at least the battle lines will be cleanly drawn and the American public will have a clear choice to make.
It could be argued that we have already chosen, but that really isn’t true. There is no “we” in American politics; no monolithic “American people”. The best you get is 51% approval, and it’s rarely that good. We are a deeply divided nation and that won’t be changing any time soon. But pragmatic politicians, precisely because they are so calculating, help us measure the national mood. When Mitt Romney lurched suddenly (some would say shamelessly) to the center, he was searching for that magical 51%. Instead, he had to settle for the 47% his all-too candid remarks had claimed. Obama got to do the speechifying today because his horseshoe landed a tiny bit closer to the poll we have planted in that steadily shifting sandbox we call “public opinion”.
We get the politicians we deserve. They won’t change until we change. They are divided because we are divided. They dissemble because we lack the courage of our convictions. They lie to us because we wish to be lied to. Unity is too much to ask; the best we can expect is an honest fight laced with a dollop of conviction and a dash of candor. That’s what we heard today in Washington, and that’s as good as it gets.