The complaints of congressional Republicans that President Obama’s inaugural address sent them no bouquets and love letters show a lot of gall, given the history of the last four years. Obama’s inauguration speech in 2009 was crammed with language about bipartisan cooperation and ending the political rancor in Washington and what did he get for it?
First, he got Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s declaration that the paramount priority of his caucus was to make Obama a one-term president. After that, he got an avalanche of roadblocks thrown in his way as GOP senators and representatives attempted to carry out McConnell’s mission.
They went to war on "Obamacare," even though a very similar scheme had been put in place in Massachusetts by the Republican governor who would become their presidential nominee in 2012 – an approach that had also been supported on a national level in the 1990s by Bob Dole, their 1996 presidential nominee. Republicans, raving about death panels and a government takeover of healthcare, attacked as if the plan had been concocted by Karl Marx and used the issue as a bludgeon to win back the House of Representatives in the 2010 election.
Today, though, having lost House seats and having failed to take back the Senate or the White House in the 2012 campaign, the GOP’s permanent rejection of anything the president proposed does not seem like such a clever tactic. Obama’s political clout is at a high point and, after giving him higher taxes on the wealthy in the end-of-the-year "fiscal cliff" showdown, Republicans are now backing away from a confrontation over raising the debt ceiling.
Democrats are ecstatic about the strong expression of liberal, communitarian values in the president’s inaugural speech, while Republicans are strangely offended that Obama would actually say what he believes rather than resort to meaningless platitudes about bipartisan comity.
Arizona Sen. John McCain complained there was no “outreach” to Republicans – this from the man who raised up from obscurity his party’s prize attack dog, Sarah Palin, a woman whose idea of outreach is a poke in the eye and a stiletto jab on the foot. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman called the speech “a lost opportunity to talk about where we can find common ground,” as if compromise and cooperation had not become dirty words among conservatives in recent years.
Republicans complained about the issues Obama chose to highlight. Why talk about climate change, equal rights for gays and the social safety net, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions asked, when “the issue of our time” is big government? Well, if that were truly the issue of our time, why was the man taking the oath of office not named Mitt Romney? In fact, big government is the obsession only of conservatives and, when they push it too far, voters punish them at the polls.
Alex Castellanos, a usually well-reasoned Republican commentator on CNN, seemed amazed that in his speech Obama defended Medicare, Social Security and government investment in infrastructure. Really? Have Republicans not noticed that most Americans, including most aging tea party activists, like Social Security and Medicare? For Obama to speak up for those big pieces of the social safety net is about as controversial as endorsing apple pie, the flag and good old mom, except to people who have been reading too much Ayn Rand.
And infrastructure spending? That was a big debate in the 1830s when Jacksonian Democrats battled with the Whigs on the issue, but since then most of us have decided maintaining roads and bridges with federal tax dollars is a pretty good idea.
Republicans may have their finger on the faint pulse of an America that is passing away, but Obama’s inaugural address spoke to the emerging majority in this country. Perhaps that is really what Republicans found unsettling in the president’s speech.