The Pragmatic Presidency Behind A Progressive Second Inaugural

 

President Obama's second inauguration speech, concluded just minutes ago, is being hailed as an undaunted espousing of progressive principles, and rightfully so. With this speech, Barack Obama became the first president in history to mention the civil rights struggles of LGBT Americans in an inaugural address. The speech was laden with a strong defense of the social safety net and a progressive vision of the future, and the president raised issues of economic justice, health care, climate change, voter disenfranchisement and war and peace. There is little doubt that this was a president ready to pursue a bold, progressive second term agenda.

The president today made us all proud. But here's what the pundits are missing: this isn't the start of a progressive presidency. It is the continuation of one. There is history behind today's speech. There are real accomplishments, real hard work, real slogging it out and putting up with destructive forces and winning over cynicism that made today's speech possible. It took a pragmatic president with unwavering commitment to his progressive principles to make today possible.

When the president today talked about Stonewall and the struggles of the LGBT movement in this country, behind it was the actions of a pragmatic president who did the hard legislative work to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He did so not simply against the resistance of the Right but the skepticism of the Left. Behind the president's celebration of equal rights was the president's commitment not to defend a discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act in court, and a transformation in his views that every American has the right to marry the person they love.

When the president spoke of climate change and took on the climate science deniers, backing that up was a presidential administration that took action to nearly double mileage standards by 2025, and for the first time included trucks in fuel efficiency standards. Backing it up also was the largest single public investment in green technology through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. More always remains to be done, but behind today's declaration that we need to take action on climate change was a president who has taken action on climate change.

As the president spoke about rejecting "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," there's a reason it rang true: this is the same president who invested much of his first term political capital into strengthening that generational contract. Backing up his words stood his actions: health care reform that for the first time invested public responsibility for providing health care not just to the poor but to the middle class, strengthening and lengthening the life of Medicare through the same, student loan reform to remove subsidies from banks to give out federal student loans and invest the money directly in students, expanding Pell grants, protecting the social safety net from automatic budget cuts, and expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program to add 5 million additional children.

Nearly all of these things came after enormous battles where too many lamented that the reforms weren't far reaching enough, not perfect enough, not good enough. They came after the president's pragmatic posture to make whatever progress is possible came under fire from self-described 'progressives.' But together, these actions showed us the forward looking vision of a president who cares far more deeply about the direction of the country he leads than his own political fortunes. And they were only achieved because of a president who put progress before ideology.

Behind a president, a little grayer, speaking of war and peace in his second inaugural was a first term young president who came to office with a commitment to end wars. Behind the speech was the actions of that president to end the war in war, and now nearing the end of the war in Afghanistan as well. Behind a president renewing a nation's commitment to veterans stood policies to remake the Veterans Administration with a Secretary who is one of their own, and a president bringing together the nation's businesses to address the gaping unemployment problem among those who serve.

Behind a second-term president who spoke valiantly about pursuing immigration reform stood the actions of a president who did what he could under current law to make the lives of young people who are Americans in every way but on paper a little easier.

Behind a president calling the nation's attention to voter disenfranchisement from the inaugural podium was the campaign that overcame those obstacles in order so that this president can give this speech.

Behind a president talking about protecting our children and our neighborhoods from gun violence stood a parent deeply affected by the recent tragedies, but also a determined leader who has already begun taking actions on gun violence.

So yes, the president delivered a manifestly strong defense of progressive principles as they apply to improving the lives of the American people. But to believe that this is some sort of a sudden transformation for a pragmatic president would be a failure to understand this president at a basic level. As I have said before, this president truly believes in being president of all of America - including the people who voted for his opponent. He will continue to seek good ideas from all sides of political beliefs, and he will seek compromise to govern. This isn't a "break" from the way this president has governed. This speech was the culmination of the way this president has governed and will continue to do so.