The overwhelming first inclination was to label President Obama's Inaugural Address a missed opportunity to mend his badly frayed relations with Congress. Reaching across the aisle and trying to unite the country after a divisive campaign is, after all, what we expect from inaugurations in normal times.
But these are not normal times, and the president's address was anything but what we expected. In the years since he burst onto the scene with a stirring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama has responded to a national yearning for a post-partisan figure who could unite warring political factions and get things done. On Monday, he decided to respond instead to a yearning among liberals who — to paraphrase Republicans' cry when they thought President Reagan was restraining his inner conservatism — want to let Obama be Obama.
And the Obama who emerged at his second inauguration did, indeed, reject the pastels of 2008 and speak in the bold colors that Reagan so favored. Unlike his first Inaugural Address, this one left little doubt where he stood. It thrilled liberals, who loved its combativeness. One influential progressive activist privately exulted to National Journal, "It looks like Charlie Brown finally picked up the football and decided to kick it himself." The activist argued, "An olive branch, frankly, would have been a real waste at this point, given what we've seen." Similar joy was seen immediately after the speech. Democratic strategist Paul Begala, speaking on CNN, celebrated that gone for the day was the president who "often slips into sort of airy-fairy "˜Kumbaya.' " In his place, Begala saw "a man itching for a fight."
So, was it a missed opportunity to forge ties with the Republican leadership in the House? Did Obama risk further poisoning his relationship with the opposition? Only if the newly reelected president had any realistic chance of the GOP responding to an extended hand — which he doesn't. And only if the Republican leaders were strong enough to lead their caucus to reach accommodations with the Democratic chief executive — which they aren't. Today, opportunities for bridging the aisle are more limited than at any other time in recent decades.
It was only 24 years ago that George H.W. Bush used his inauguration to literally reach his hand out to the Democratic leaders of the House, Speaker Jim Wright and Majority Leader Tom Foley. "I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Speaker. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Majority Leader," the new president said. "For this is the thing: This is the age of the offered hand."
That age is gone. Any Republican willing to take Obama's hand today would have to worry about a primary challenge. The Inaugural Address also suggests that the president is less than willing to offer it after four years of watching Republicans in Congress savage every one of his legislative initiatives.
"To call it a missed opportunity assumes that if you just said the right things, it would have changed a lot of minds, and they could move forward and work together," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "I am uncomfortable with the conclusion. It assumes that words can change people's ideologies. And I don't think words can do that in this context."
The lack of an olive branch to House Republicans also reflects the White House's belief that better relations with Speaker John Boehner wouldn't translate to needed legislative compromises, anyway. "You have a speaker who is weak and has two-thirds of his caucus voting against what he came up with" on the fiscal cliff, Thurber said to National Journal. "This is a speaker who can't deliver even if you reach out to him. It is not like the old speakers, who could deliver and had some discipline and could change behavior."
Four years of warfare with the House GOP have also, unavoidably, colored the president's approach, and there are no signs that his reelection brought even a momentary truce. No modern reelected president was threatened with impeachment between Election Day and Inauguration Day. Until Obama. Two GOP House members, encouraged by former Attorney General Edwin Meese, have suggested that Obama should be impeached for issuing executive orders on gun violence. Those kinds of threats helped create the environment in which the president crafted his speech.
Stephen Hess, who was an aide to Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon and has been in town for 14 inaugurals, thought the speech was "middling," but he believes the purpose behind it is shrewd. "Clearly, his strategy is to go to the people. And this is the way you start. That's going to be his tool," Hess told NJ. "He's got a relatively short time."¦ On the issues he has chosen, public opinion is favorable to him. So you'd better come in with a sledgehammer to get through the trench warfare."
After the president's combative press conference last week and his assertive Inaugural Address this week, this is clearly the strategy the White House is carrying into the second term. Senior adviser David Plouffe confirmed this on CNN's State of the Union. "We are trying to enlist the American people in these debates," he said, stressing that public support is "the only way change is going to really happen and we make progress." It is, he said, "one of the lessons of the first term. They need to be involved."
It is why the president directed the first speech of his new term at the Americans watching him on television and not the Republican leaders sitting only a few feet away at the Capitol. And it is why the coming legislative battles will seem more like a public campaign than a backroom negotiation.