Obama's Clear Yet Muted Trumpet: Hope's Audacity Meets Lowered Expectations

01/23/2013 05:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama delivers his Inaugural address at the ceremonial swearing-in
FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama delivers his Inaugural address at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington. Obama's emphatic gay-rights advocacy in his inaugural address thrilled many activists. Yet almost immediately came the questions and exhortations as to what steps should be taken next. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A spirited if episodic address delivered by our first black president on the occasion of his second inauguration, acclaimed by most of the media, living up to many expectations of the Democratic base, and... a relatively flat response from the public as a whole.

What gives?

A new Gallup Poll survey indicates that President Barack Obama's second inaugural was not nearly the smash with the public that his first was.

Far fewer watched the inaugural events or followed media coverage of them. Obama's second inaugural address garnered far less support than his first. And people are notably less hopeful about the next four years than they were four years ago.

President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address on Monday.

That last, of course, is probably as much a factor of hard experience as it is reaction to what Obama and his advisors produced in the way of an inaugural spectacle.

There was actually less attention paid to Obama's second inaugural than there was to George W. Bush's second inaugural in January 2005. Which has to come as a surprise.

But Obama's speech played better than Bush's.

Which, to be frank, is rather damning with faint praise if you think about it, since, quite unlike Obama, no one has ever suggested that Bush is a great orator.

Aside from the inevitable carping from conservative Republicans, Obama garnered mostly positive reviews for his second inaugural address.

I found it to be a spirited speech, a defense of and case for a modern sort of liberalism, but too much the laundry list for great oratory.

It sounded to me like an extension of his campaign rhetoric, which is certainly fine, since he won the election rather handily as it happens, but it didn't blow my skirt up the way it did a lot of East Coast media types. Perhaps they are compensating for doubting his election prospects. Perhaps their excitement stems from Obama's seeming determination this time around to stick to a mostly liberal agenda. But he had already signaled that in the course of the endless campaign, and in the wake of the ongoing failure of compromise in Washington except in the most extreme and obvious circumstances.

The speech was more like a shorter, more elegant version of a State of the Union than what I was hoping for. Of course, it may just be that I've watched and read too many Obama speeches, and have become somewhat indifferent as a result.

Yet the stage had been set for something truly memorable.

Obama, our young president gone gray, began his second term as America's first black president, marking the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, taking the ceremonial oath using the King and Lincoln bibles.

He of course won re-election in November in rather handy fashion, beating his chameleon conservative Republican opponent Mitt Romney 51 percent to 47 percent in the popular vote, and by a much wider margin in the electoral vote, just as polling guru Nate Silver and, well, some others of us, predicted. The seeming drama of the campaign turned out to be more a function of cultural neurosis than actual reality. But surprise is surprise, whether it ought to exist or not, so Obama's victory had an added frisson of drama attached to it.

The campaign, however, modeled in many ways on Bush's grinding 2004 re-election, did not uplift, and there was little beyond a late coming-together around Superstorm Sandy to suggest a bright path forward. Which was quite ironic, considering how little has been done on climate change.

The grinding hyper-partisanship of the election season has continued beyond, and, aside from ending the Bush/Cheney tax cuts for the rich, the president's campaign sounded an uncertain trumpet with regard to any sense of mission.

Obama has multiple geopolitical crises to deal with, as I've been writing right along, and a fractious Congress to contend with. He is attempting his big geopolitical pivot to the Asia-Pacific region -- as I discuss in this ongoing series of articles -- but is caught up in the regions he is pivoting from.

Then there is the economy, which is in what for most is the most anemic sort of recovery.

And a lot of the muted reaction to Obama's inaugural is simply a matter of lowered expectations.

Whether one wants to blame Obama or not, the fact is that Washington has made no progress in slicing the Gordian knot of gridlock, to mangle a few metaphors.

Aside from ending the Bush/Cheney tax cuts for the rich, Obama hasn't gotten much done in the way of raising revenues. Nor has he gotten much done on the alternative, cutting spending.

Washington just sails on in its loud, cranky dysfunction, with the inmates in its political and media communities all too happy to keep on bleating and tweeting on matters of trivia and matters of significance alike, investing each with equivalent import.

Of course, public expectations were probably too high in the first place.

Four years ago, Obama entered office with the glow of post-partisanship, an admittedly amorphous but popular concept, amidst hopes that he could get fractious partisans of both parties to work together in the common good. This was consistent with the positioning he adopted in the speech which rocketed him on to the center stage of American politics, his much acclaimed keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

And Obama tried. He hosted a pre-inaugural dinner for his defeated opponent, Senator John McCain, who rose to fame as a politician by reaching across the aisle. He gave up potential negotiating points in advance on key issues to demonstrate his willingness to compromise. It didn't work.

While it was wise for him to open matters with a post-partisan stance, he generally hung with it too long, seeking deals that were probably never there.

In California, the governor and former presidential candidate who invented the notion of "lowered expectations" in an "Era of Limits," Jerry Brown, also opened his new/renewed governorship at the beginning of 2011 with a post-partisan stance.

He enacted big budget cuts and worked around the clock to try to cobble together a handful of Republican legislative votes -- in California's unusual system, requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes but only a simple majority to cut them -- to raise some revenues by extending temporary tax hikes in a popular vote. Republicans wouldn't even give him the votes needed to allow a vote of the people on taxes.

But Brown only pursued this course for the first half-year of his governorship. He then regrouped, as he told me he would do if needs be, and pulled together an initiative campaign to raise needed revenues. Which passed with a whopping 11-point margin of victory in November.

The reality is that American politics is marked by hyper-partisanship. Democrats are very partisan. Republicans, well, they are generally virulently partisan. With very few exceptions, moderate Republicans today exist only on Mad Men.

If there is a future for post-partisanship, and there should be, it will only come as the result of seriously hard work carving out the space for it. But that's another essay entirely.

As we saw in his remarkably tactical, war of attrition-style campaign just past, Obama now deals with politics as he finds it, using it to promote a world he would have come into being.

If that's not as inspirational for the public, or as uplifting as some of us would like from a literary standpoint, so be it.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.