WASHINGTON — A young reporter who has only covered President Obama's first term has already witnessed several political epochs.
Obama's election was a symbol of reconciliation in America's longest, bloodiest conflict — the one that produced Antietam. It was followed by a partisan lunge to fulfill the dreams of the Great Society by delivering universal health care. Which was followed by an ideological backlash that shifted control of the House, led by activists who talked as if the whole welfare state might be undone. Which was followed by Obama's victorious re-election campaign, which turned the mobilization of partisans and ethnic groups into an exact science and re-engaged the culture war on abortion.
The compression of these ideological mood swings into four years has left an impression of political instability, perhaps bipolarity. Both parties overreach. They focus mainly on energizing the faithful rather than persuading the undecided.
Such polarization has deep roots. Parties, communities and regions have sorted themselves by ideology, producing citizens who operate in separate partisan worlds. Partisan media outlets succeed through the reinforcement and exaggeration of grievances.
What can a presidential inaugural address do to oppose these centrifugal forces? Probably not much. Maybe admit some mutual fault and call for a new beginning. Maybe direct attention to unifying national values beyond current controversies. Maybe just assert the moral duties of kindness and civility we owe each other in a democracy.
This year, however, the influence of such a speech remains untested because it was not attempted. President Obama set an unobjectionable goal: “a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.” He asserted that this objective can only be achieved “together, as one nation, and one people.” But he proceeded to define an agenda, in some detail, that could have been taken from any campaign speech of the 2012 election. It involves the building of roads and research labs, promoting clean-energy technology, protecting entitlements from significant change, passing equal pay legislation and immigration reform.