Our friends, John and Lois, hosted a second Inaugural party, some thirty guests to witness the ceremonial swearing in of the President and his speech. What a difference four years make. Last time it was a euphoric party, imagine, a young black president, imbued with liberal ideals, but with an economy that had already shown signs of complete collapse the joy was somewhat restrained by worry.
Four years later, the intransigence of government compromise has given way to more temperate expectations. However, none of this detracted from the day, a remarkable, very moving, and humbling exercise of the democratic process with the pageantry instilling a quiet pride and hopefulness in us and the sea of faces that swept across the National Mall.
Everything about it was just about perfect, even the weather cooperating. President Obama's speech was aspirational and progressive, touching upon many of the themes of his presidency and introducing the sorely needed goal of combating climate change. Perhaps he will make that the hallmark of his second term as universal healthcare was in his first. In spite of the overwhelming need to face this issue realistically, action has been lacking. Here is an interesting pro/con alignment of opinions on this subject (hat tip Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture).
This will become yet another clash in Congress. To fully understand the severity of political polarization, one only has to read comments about Obama's reelection such as Texas Representative John Culberson's: I grieve for the country....We’re going to throw the emergency brake on as best we can and fight him every step of the way. Welcome to your second term, Mr. President!
A key phrase from the Inaugural speech, we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it, was also Obama's central point when he was campaigning and will probably be the fulcrum of budgeting and tax reform. But this is going to be a more complex problem as there are systemic reasons behind this widening gap that go far beyond the reach of mere tax reform legislation. The New York Times magazine section this Sunday carried a relatively brief but pointed article on "skill-biased technical change:" The rise of networked laptops and smartphones and their countless iterations and spawn have helped highly educated professionals create more and more value just as they have created barriers to entry and rendered irrelevant millions of less-educated workers, in places like factory production lines and typing pools.
Thus, workers having technology skills, mostly those in information industry professions, law, finance, engineering, and medicine, have disproportionately benefited from those skills at the expense of blue collar workers who have been forced into the service economy at lower wages. Having technology skills is tantamount to buying on margin, being able to leverage those skills for much greater compensation.
So when President Obama tries to put through legislation to reverse this course, it has to take into account not only tax reform, but massive educational reform and the effects of that will not be immediate, but rather long term, maybe measured in generations, like the progress made in civil rights. Do we have the fortitude and patience?
And, then there is the deficit and reducing the National Debt. We could embrace the best parts of the Simpson-Bowles plan (so eagerly commissioned by both parties as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and then the results so immediately distanced by both) No one wants to face up to their recommendations. Our massive National Debt in part was incurred to save our financial system from ruin, but it did not occur overnight. Quick and easy fixes are impossible. But, if we get the direction right, and gradually phase in some of the Commission's recommendations, perhaps we can then move forward on that front.
But do our politicians have the right stuff? This is where presidential leadership is so sorely needed. President Obama threw down the gauntlet in his speech about the need for action -- even "imperfect" action -- a veiled suggestion of compromise. There were two beautifully crafted paragraphs about the dangers of taking intransigent positions based on ideology in his speech:
That is our generation’s task -- to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.
For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
Finally, a bit of serendipity. Does life imitate art? I had noted that Aaron Sorkin's 1995 classic The American President, directed by Rob Reiner, was on TV the same night as the inaugural. We've seen it before but Ann and I, in a "presidential inauguration mood," said, what the heck, we'll watch it again (thanks Encore, no commercial interruptions). Talk about a feel good movie and how incredibly relevant although made almost twenty years ago. The focus of fictional President Andrew Shepherd's administration is to pass a crime bill (with assault weapon gun control) and an environmental bill that mandates the reduction of hydrocarbon emissions. Meanwhile, a right wing political demagogue, Senator Bob Rumson, is running against Shepherd's reelection, appealing to "family values" of Americans, by attacking Shepherd's relationship with Sydney Ellen Wade (Shepherd is a widower in the film). Have things changed so little in the almost twenty years since the film's making? Unresolved issues of gun control, environmental protection, and campaign character assault go on and on.
The film's President Andrew Shepherd initially takes the high road, concentrating on the issues rather than the personal attacks until he appears at an unscheduled and impromptu news conference and gives an impassioned, unrehearsed speech. Perhaps all our politicians should see this movie once every four years (I realize that Sorkin writes with his own political agenda -- even I think that eliminating handguns cannot be on the lumped in with assault weapons -- but taking that into account, still there is much to be gleaned from this wonderful and eerily relevant script). Here is what "President Shepherd" says:
For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being president of this country was, to a certain extent, about character, and although I have not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I've been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being President of this country is entirely about character. For the record: yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU. But the more important question is why aren't you, Bob? Now, this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question: Why would a senator, his party's most powerful spokesman and a candidate for President, choose to reject upholding the Constitution? If you can answer that question, folks, then you're smarter than I am, because I didn't understand it until a few hours ago. America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free". I've known Bob Rumson for years, and I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character. And wave an old photo of the President's girlfriend and you scream about patriotism and you tell them, she's to blame for their lot in life, and you go on television and you call her a whore. Sydney Ellen Wade has done nothing to you, Bob. She has done nothing but put herself through school, represent the interests of public school teachers, and lobby for the safety of our natural resources. You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, 'cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.
I've loved two women in my life. I lost one to cancer, and I lost the other 'cause I was so busy keeping my job I forgot to do my job. Well, that ends right now. Tomorrow morning, the White House is sending a bill to Congress for its consideration. It's White House Resolution 455, an energy bill requiring a 20 percent reduction of the emission of fossil fuels over the next ten years. It is by far the most aggressive stride ever taken in the fight to reverse the effects of global warming. The other piece of legislation is the crime bill. As of today, it no longer exists. I'm throwing it out. I'm throwing it out writing a law that makes sense. You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and handguns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I'm gonna convince Americans that I'm right, and I'm gonna get the guns. We've got serious problems, and we need serious people, and if you want to talk about character, Bob, you'd better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I'll show up. This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President.
What a way to cap off Inauguration Day.