Hope and Skepticism

The president's brave stance on social issues should be matched by fiscal prudence

President Obama spent almost 20 minutes addressing the nation during his second inaugural address on Monday. As he delivered his remarks, it became increasingly clear that we were in for a speech different in both tone and substance than the largely post-partisan and conciliatory approach proffered four years prior. While the first-term Obama pleaded America to hopefully accept the notion that “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply,” the new and improved version implores an unidentified opponent to not “mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”

The shift in the nature of his speech marked a momentous occasion. Instead of blithely pretending that all Americans share the same principled beliefs, Obama argued that the fight for freedom and justice is not complete until there is necessary action on a variety of progressive fronts. The president made history by becoming the first of his office to publicly come out in favor of gay equality under the law, and he attracted almost as much post-address attention for his support of legislation addressing climate change. Some, including Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, criticized the audacity of his remarks, ominously announcing “the era of liberalism is back” in what is ultimately a mistake “directed at an America [he] still [believes] is center-right.”

While Senator McConnell is not wrong about the liberal nature of President Obama’s peroration, his assertion that Obama’s progressive views conflict with those held by the majority of the country is nonsensical. This fall, Obama not only won reelection, giving him a mandate to carry out the agenda he pleases, but his Democratic Party also picked up seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Furthermore, public opinion polling continually demonstrates nationwide support for the social agenda outlined by the president. Sixty-three percent of Americans now identify global warming as a serious problem. Support for same-sex marriage rises year after year, such that a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows 51 percent of the country in favor. This measure is up from 30 percent in 2004 and 41 percent in 2009. At this rate, an overwhelming majority will likely approve of marriage equality by the next election. We strongly believe it is the duty of the nation’s leader to reflect the views of where the country is going, as opposed to those of where the country has been.

The problem we have with President Obama’s address does not stem from his better-late-than-never advocacy of issues many have spent the last four years so patiently waiting for. Rather, the speech’s flaw results from the issue the president conveniently ignored: the perilous state of our nation’s finances and impending budgetary decisions. We are disappointed with the president’s wholesale commitment to entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, each of which he mentioned by name. Mention of these policies in the same breath as important constitutional rights reflects a fundamental lack of seriousness in confronting one of the most urgent battles ahead. It is no secret that the structure of American entitlement spending needs to be reformed. As such, it is disappointing to see the president return to election-style demagoguery, reminiscent of when each side spuriously accused the other of wanting to take away Medicare.

On the whole, it was refreshing to see Obama take up the issues that originally attracted so many passionate campaign supporters. We are optimistic that the president will make strides in the realm of civil rights such as those not seen in half a decade. However, we also hope that he does not lose sight of the financial uncertainty plaguing so many Americans since the days of his predecessor. There may remain a yet un-bridged divide in the nation on the topic of social issues, but the country stands united in its desideration of more jobs and a growing economy.

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