In my Sunday column, I suggested that the most interesting part of President Obama’s second inaugural address Monday may be the “steely notes” – reminders to his Republican adversaries that he won the presidential election by a significant margin and his description of what kind of mandate he thinks he has.
But since I wrote those words, I’ve decided I’m just as interested in the flip side of the proposition: What kind of outstretched hand will Obama offer to any Republicans who are willing to meet him halfway?
Since his reelection in November, Obama has understandably been intent on making sure the GOP absorbed the lessons of its defeat. He forced Republicans to concede an income tax increase in the negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” without giving much in return. He appears to be on the verge of another such victory, a GOP agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling.
But those are only tactical wins. The larger goal is a broader fiscal agreement that increases tax revenues, cuts future spending and shrinks the federal deficit. That will require more than the kind of short-term brinkmanship we’ve seen so far. Like any successful negotiation, it will require giving something to both sides and allowing the weaker party – in this case, the GOP – to save face.
Today’s speech is a chance for Obama to open the door, again, to the kind of bipartisan cooperation he hoped would be a hallmark of his first term – only in a more limited, more realistic frame.
And that’s what his political strategist, David Plouffe, suggests he’ll do.
"He is going to talk about the fact that our political system doesn’t require us to resolve all of our disputes or settle all of our differences," Plouffe said Sunday on CNN’s "State of the Union." "But it does impel us to act where there should be, and is, common ground."
Second inaugural addresses are usually unmemorable. Lincoln’s second is the great exception – but then, it was delivered in the final stage of a civil war.
Most analogies between Obama’s presidency and Lincoln’s are strained. But there may be a modest one here: Obama’s second inaugural comes at a time of deep and bitter division. One of his goals should be to try to bind up the nation’s wounds, fiscally and otherwise. That will doubtless require more than one appeal to the better angels of our nature – starting Monday.