President Obama has finally come of age politically, and he knows where he wants to go. His political adversaries do not.
The president served notice in his second inaugural address, and again in his State of the Union speech, that he intends to follow the path blazed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, two fellow Democrats who insisted that expanded government could improve most American lives. They pushed the costs of their programs onto future generations, but most citizens nevertheless came to cherish government-subsidized pensions, disability and unemployment insurance, and medical care for the elderly and poor.
It was an uncommonly partisan inaugural address, one that would have been more suited to a campaign rally. But it was not a surprise. This was the President Obama that his admirers hoped to see and that his critics feared they would: a president freed from the constraints of re-election politics and eager to take his place in the pantheon of Democratic heroes.
It certainly grated on Republican ears to hear the president, fresh off a campaign in which he spent millions defining Mitt Romney as an unfeeling plutocrat, chastising them for mistaking “name calling as reasoned debate.”
It may have seemed the height of hypocrisy to hear the president, who less than a year ago still opposed same-sex marriage, assert that “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” or the man whose administration has deported millions demand that “we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.”
There may have been some smirks at the president’s view of American history when he declared that the white, landowning males who led the Revolution and were the nation’s first voters - some of whom beseeched George Washington to wear a monarch’s crown - “did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few.”
But most Americans are not historians, and they don’t care whether Obama’s history is accurate.
They don’t care that Obama is a latecomer to the cause of equal rights for gays. Those who care about equal rights are content to know that the president is on their side now, however late and no matter why he arrived there. The same is true of people who think our immigration system is dysfunctional, counterproductive and often cruel. They want reform. If the president now wants to push for reform too, they are happy to accept his help and let bygones be bygones.
They don’t particularly care whether the president is right or wrong that more federal spending will make their lives better. They think their lives should be made better, and at least the president seems to be trying to do it. If economists cannot agree on whether Obama’s policies do more harm than good (and economists are famous for not agreeing on anything at all), then why should the average person worry about it?
Obama knows where he wants to take the country and, now that Election Day is over, he is not shy about telling us. What about Republicans?
All we really need to know about Republicans is that it took two of them to respond to Obama’s State of the Union address.
The statement Republicans needed to make is that prosperity cannot be built by siphoning money from savers using interest rates pegged near zero, from businesses through mandates and restrictions, and from tax increases that target a tiny slice of the population labeled “the rich.” The GOP needed to stress that today’s debts and deficits will place terrible burdens on our children and grandchildren, as will our failure to address entitlement reform. People care about their kids.
Yet when Marco Rubio, the junior senator from my home state of Florida, delivered the official GOP response, he immediately veered off-message. Instead of emphasizing why Obama’s financial mismanagement will hurt Americans in the long run, the party’s rising young star put his personal religious and anti-abortion views front and center. “America is exceptional because we believe that every life, at every stage, is precious,” Rubio asserted in his not-too-secretly-coded message to the social conservatives who dominate GOP presidential primaries.
A large slice of people who favor abortion rights all but abandoned Rubio’s talk right there. His jab probably had little impact even among abortion opponents, coming at a time when many voters of all beliefs wonder how they will meet their next mortgage or college loan payment.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, delivered a response from the Tea Party - which, of course, isn’t a party at all. But it is a convenient foil for anyone who wants to paint all Republicans as political extremists who favor all guns and oppose all taxes.
Paul obligingly portrayed Republicans and Democrats as equally responsible for the nation’s fiscal woes. With no more respect for history than Obama, Paul cited former President Ronald Reagan as a role model for small government, the implication being that Reagan’s soaring deficits were an example of fiscal rectitude. Paul called for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. Even economists agree this makes little sense, and it has no chance whatsoever of passing.
Though many other things Paul said are perfectly reasonable, at least to Republicans, his all-or-nothing approach and his attacks on both parties meant most voters probably tuned him out, too.
You don’t see television networks giving response time to Moveon.org or to the Congressional Black Caucus to present their far-left views of the Democratic Party’s agenda. The attention bestowed on the Tea Party presents the GOP, unfairly, as the only one of the two major parties that has an extreme wing. But it does not help when the party’s mainstream spokesman presents himself as more socially extreme than the alleged extremist of the Tea Party.
Republicans are late to the game on immigration reform. They are far out of step with fast-evolving views on gay rights and they are rigid in opposition to abortion, even though the American public is far more diverse than, and often alienated by, that GOP rigidity.
Do Republicans want to be the party that represents a shrinking pool of religious voters in the Bible Belt, or do they want people to listen to their economic ideas long enough to give them a chance of regenerating support in places like the Northeast and the West Coast?
Obama and the Democrats know where they want to go. Republicans don’t. Until the GOP can make up its mind to be a national party that accommodates America’s regional diversity in social views, it is not likely to get another turn in the driver’s seat.