Liberals and progressives who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and again in 2012, took heart yesterday. On the steps of the U.S. Capitol, they heard the Barack Obama they voted for in 2008: the progressive Democrat who wasn’t afraid to take on difficult, unpopular battles and stand up for the underdog. Conservatives, on the other hand, no doubt cringed, as the liberal president introduced his second term agenda with a decided shift to the left. It was the lefty Obama they knew had been hiding all along behind the curtain of a moderate Democrat.
Wherever you stand on the issues, there’s no arguing that in his second inaugural speech, Obama threw down the gauntlet to Congress. The most quoted passage of his speech is as follows:
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.
In one fell swoop of a paragraph, Obama managed to take on equal pay for women, gay marriage, voting rights, immigration reform, poverty and gun control. Whew! At other points in his speech he spoke of the need to address climate change—something the environmentalists who backed him have long been waiting to hear—and keep Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs safe and solvent. Without naming names, he called out opponents for their partisanship and shallow rhetoric.
In short, he came out swinging.
As The Washington Post and other news outlets report, the Obama we saw yesterday was an older, wiser version of the energetic, idealistic young senator who swept into office in 2008 on a wave of popularity and optimism. Where he may have tried—and often failed—to find common ground and compromise with Republicans during his first term, he indicated yesterday, in no uncertain terms, that he was ready to fight for the issues and values that Democrats hold dear, and stand up for the poor, the elderly, minorities and children. As Chris Cilliza of the Post wrote yesterday, Obama’s speech could be summed up in one phrase: “I’m the president, deal with it.”
After all, why shouldn’t Obama set forth a bold, uncompromising agenda for his second term? He won’t be running for reelection. He has nothing to lose by standing his ground instead of seeking out the soft middle ground with his opponents—and often never finding it anyway. As with the fiscal cliff fiasco, when Republicans refuse to compromise, he’ll simply take his battle to the people, and make conservative leaders defend to the general populace their opposition to gay marriage and even the most modest gun control proposals, their refusal to budge on a tax hike for the nation’s wealthiest individuals, and why they’re against comprehensive health care coverage for all. And guess what? Two elections in a row have shown that while we are a nation divided along ideological lines, the majority of Americans stand with Obama.
For us liberals, this is the Obama we’ve been waiting for. And although there’s a wide gap—especially in politics—between promises made and promises delivered upon, for those of us who’ve been waiting—at times patiently and at times with exasperation—for the progressive Obama to emerge from behind the curtain, yesterday was a very, very good day. Barack is back, and not a moment too soon.