Let Us Now Praise (and Appraise) Our Famous President
President Obama delivered an eloquent, hard-hitting Inaugural address Jan. 21 to launch his second term.
In a day filled with pageantry, Obama delivered one of his presidency's most liberal speeches, available here. The president put a number of progressive policies on his second-term to-do list. The agenda surprised opponents and supporters alike who had seen him repeatedly compromise on his campaign promises, including in the year-end "fiscal cliff" negotiations.
Obama's stronger, more confident stance this week has its roots in the implacable GOP opposition to him throughout his first term and continuing into the transition. That's the new conventional wisdom in Washington.
Additionally, he and his advisors were outraged by dirty tricks by election opponents I am reporting in my forthcoming book, Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters. These included vote suppression and manipulation strategies, as well as largely bogus foreign policy attacks focused on the Benghazi massacre and, more generally, in a "Swift Boat" genre organizational effort against him by ex-military.
Obama could not complain about Republican campaign maneuvers during the campaign without sounding like a whiner. But it now appears that Republicans may pay the price for using over-the-top methods to win the White House for their elite constituency.
Or, maybe not.
It could be that the president's bold words during the Inaugural were part of the show, as much a mystery as whether singers were lip-synching. The president's rhetoric could have been intended to set up his supporters for more last-minute concessions on such vital issues as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and taxes.
I had a front row seat to some of the proceedings from my office on Pennsylvania Avenue, half-way along the president's parade route. The locale is just a block east from the Caucus Room Restaurant where Republicans plotted in 2009 to block all of Obama's initiatives no matter what they were. It's a block west from the hotel site where John Wilkes Booth plotted the assassination of President Lincoln.
During the 2009 Inaugural, I photographed President Obama and First Lady, as shown above. This led to my front-page scoop on the Huffington Post, Why the President ‘Stepped Out’ During His Inaugural Parade.
That prompted a follow up regarding Bush-era injustices, Probe the Past to Protect the Future, and a number of investigative reports published there and elsewhere. These injustices included the Bush frame-up of Democratic former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and its unfair railroading to prison of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, a Republican. The Obama administration's failure to rectify such demonstrable Bush injustices led to the creation of the nonpartisan Justice Integrity Project.
The government's power to create impressive displays is matched only by the public's patriotic desire for inspiration on such an occasion as an Inaugural. Therefore, the essence of this column is a range of opinion and predictions, excerpted below in an appendix. Try though we might to predict the future, however, we might as well concede that anyone who knows is not saying --or at the least might be hard to believe.
That said, let me share several insights from various quarters that struck me as telling. First, the most remarkable of the historical factoids were heard about presidents this week surely must be that Obama's reelection marked only the third time in United States history that a Democrat won two terms by a majority of vote. (The others were Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
Among the chatter about officials and celebrities, I found it striking that GOP 2012 nominee Mitt Romney leaked that he would not even be watching the event, much less attending. Not watching or attending might be understandable in human terms. To convey his plans underscored why the candidate failed.
The title of my column today is loosely derived from the Depression-era photo-essay book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agree and Walker Evans. The book's powerful images of rural poverty, especially in the South, signified an era of economic struggle much like today. A difference was that the political map was almost reversed, with a Solid South of all-white Democrats, many of them New Deal populists except in their support of segregation.
We hear plenty from rural Southern whites, including on this site, often through their incarnation as tea party advocates. We present today also voices from black America rarely heard in mainstream circles. One of the pioneering and still vigorous such voices is Glen Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report. His published a column, The White House Un-Reality Show, excepted below along with a radio commentary by his colleague, Bruce Dixon.
Looking ahead, several MSNBC commentators made telling points this week about the larger trends:
"There's so much willingness to rig elections on the part of Republicans," said Chris Matthews. "I can see them saying, 'We're never going to be popular again!'"
"People don't want this gridlock," said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, now head a group called "Purple Nation."
"There was a lot of pride among African Americans and Hispanics," said Al Sharpton, who noted that the Inauguration coincided with Martin Luther King Day. "They were the targets of the election, and they felt, 'We beat them back.'"
"If Barack Obama had not won a second term it [election of an African-American] would have looked like an accident of a history," said commentator Joy Reid.
"There's no question that one of the most important announcements of the week was 'Organizing for Action," said Jonathan Alter, commenting a decision by Obama officials to transform their campaign organization, "Obama for America" into an ongoing advocacy group to advance the administration's second term policy goals.
Meanwhile, from the right, the Republican Senate leader warned, Mitch McConnell On Obama Inauguration Speech: 'The Era Of Liberalism Is Back. And, from a human rights advocate, the Wall Street Journal's United Nations correspondent Joe Lauria, an iconclastic friend of mine, wrote a free-lance piece, Inauguration Shouldn't be a Coronation,
Related News Coverage
Barack Obama Inaugural Address 2013, Barack Obama via OpEd News, Jan. 21, 2013. Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.
Roll Call, Obama Pushes Sweeping Agenda, Steven T. Dennis, Jan. 21, 2013. In an aggressive address that called for action on climate change, gay rights, immigration and the nation’s partisan divide, Obama urged the country to come together to reaffirm its founding principles. With his far-reaching inaugural address Monday, an emboldened President Barack Obama made the case for an activist federal government and a decidedly liberal agenda while challenging the gridlocked Congress to act. In a surprisingly aggressive address that called for action on climate change, gay rights, immigration and the nation’s partisan divide, Obama urged the country to come together to reaffirm — and extend — its founding principles. “Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life,” Obama said. “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.” The bold push for long-sought liberal policy goals came against the backdrop of a Congress that may not even be able to avoid a government shutdown in March and has only managed to govern through serial self-imposed deadlines and crises. But the president went well beyond the cautious, compromise-first efforts in his first term that so often disappointed his liberal base, suggesting that he will keep to the harder-nosed negotiating style he has employed since Election Day. Liberals cheered, believing the president was making the argument they always thought he should make.
Roll Call, GOP Finds Little to Like in Obama's Inaugural Address, Meredith Shiner and Jonathan Strong, Jan. 21, 2013.Republicans by and large held their fire Monday following the peaceful installation of the nation’s commander in chief, but by next month’s State of the Union address, the so-called “loyal opposition” is unlikely to equivocate in expressing its simmering frustration with President Barack Obama. The pomp and circumstance of Monday’s ceremonial festivities were a brief respite from Congress’ lurch from one tense budget deadline to the next, even if Obama did surprise many by mentioning several liberal-leaning policy goals in his inaugural address. Although the subtext of Obama’s speech was aimed at getting Congress to find some common ground, the Feb. 12 State of the Union will provide them with more specific targets.
Black Agenda Report, The White House Un-Reality Show, Glen Ford, Jan. 23, 2013. Despite the fact that “it was Barack Obama who began the current austerity offensive in the weeks before delivering his first inaugural address,” the president was allowed to pose as a champion of the social safety net. Having redefined war, he once again claims to be a peacemaker. “By cheering the inaugural speech, progressives are only encouraging Obama’s gaming and mendacity.”
Black Agenda Radio, Symbols Are All We Need: Four More Years of Black Silence, Irrelevance, Commentary by Managing Editor Bruce Dixon, Jan. 23, 2013. Our black political class, from the president down to sheriffs evoke the struggles and victories of the fifties and sixties, but have nothing to show for the seventies, eighties nineties or the new century except their own careers. They are utterly unprepared to fight or even assist in the fight for economic justice, peace and rolling back the prison state. But they're good role models, which is all we really need. We've all lived to now to see the US elect thousands of African American local and state officials and re-elect the first black president. It's important somehow, that all these mayors, congress creatures and the rest from county sheriffs to the president are black, and that they all ceaseless evoke the epic Black Freedom movement of 45 and 50 years ago. It's much less important that black leadership has few or no victories to boast for the seventies, the eighties, the nineties or the new century, apart from their own illustrious careers, or that the war on drugs and the prison state sprung AFTER the Freedom Movement ended and continue effectively unchallenged on their watch.
Washington Post, Obama’s speech heralds a bolder leadership style, Dan Balz, Jan. 21, 2013. A confident Obama takes oath for second time, seemingly committed to forwarding his agenda.
OpEdNews, This President Can -- and Must -- Claim a Mandate to Govern, John Nichols, Jan. 20, 2013. With his second inauguration, Barack Obama will become the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to renew his tenure after having won more than 51 percent of the vote in two consecutive elections. More importantly, in a political sense, he will be the first Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to have won mandates from the majority of the American people in two consecutive elections. We should expect a great deal from Barack Obama. Despite four years of battering by Fox and Limbaugh and the Tea Party and Mitch McConnell, he has been reelected with a higher percentage of the popular vote than John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992 of 1996 or George Bush in 2000 and 2004. The president has in the transition period since the 2012 election displayed a willingness to push harder, to go bigger, and it has yielded significant progress not just on gun-safety issues but in the long struggle against the Republican austerity agenda that makes a diety of deregulating away consumer and environmental protections, tearing the social-safety net and cutting taxes for wealthy campaign donors. See also: Huffington Post, The Road Forward: Obama's Second Term Challenges,
Huffington Post, Mitch McConnell On Obama Inauguration Speech: 'The Era Of Liberalism Is Back,' Ryan Grim, Jan. 22, 2013. Liberalism has returned in force, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday, reviewing the president's Inaugural Address. "One thing is clear from the president's speech: The era of liberalism is back. His unabashedly far-left-of-center inaugural speech certainly brings back memories of the Democratic Party in ages past," he said. "If the president pursued that kind of agenda, obviously it's not designed to bring us together, and certainly not designed to deal with the transcendent issue of our era, which is deficits and debt." Sen. John Thune, a member of GOP leadership, seconded McConnell. "We were reminded yesterday that this is a liberal president with a liberal agenda," he said.
Huffington Post, Inauguration Shouldn't be a Coronation, Joe Lauria, Jan. 21, 2012. Americans fought an eight-year war of liberation against not only the most powerful monarchy on earth in 1775 but against monarchy itself. Yet once the dust settled and it was time to write a Constitution compromises left America a legacy of monarchy now gone from most of Europe. Among the kingly powers still residing in the American presidency are the pardon, the veto and the title Commander-in-Chief. Add to that list the Inaugural celebration we are about to witness in Washington, DC. mong the kingly powers still residing in the American presidency are the pardon, the veto and the title Commander-in-Chief. Add to that list the Inaugural celebration we are about to witness in Washington, DC. None of this has any place in a democracy. Unlike in Europe, whose time for Empire has come and gone, the United States combines the practical power of head of government with the symbolic power of head of state. It is a frightening combination. But that is the point: to instill fear. It is part of how rulers rule, how leaders manage populations. A mere mortal, albeit one with mortal power over other people's lives, is transformed through ritual and ceremony into a super-human figure who is not to be messed with. As the chief executive he holds in his hands the state's monopoly on violence -- both domestic and foreign. That fear of potential violence buffers an American president from criticism. It takes courage for someone -- a cabinet official, a journalist or an ordinary citizen -- to stand up to a president while he's in power. Only now we are hearing from a judge who says Bush was a torturer.
Huffington Post, Obama Polls Find Optimism About His Second Term, Pessimism About Economy, Mark Blumenthal and Emily Swanson, Washington, Jan. 19, 2013, More Americans are optimistic than pessimistic about how President Barack Obama will handle his second term, but that hope does not translate into a positive outlook on the economy or the potential for greater cooperation in Washington. Those finding stand out from a wide variety of public opinion polls conducted since November's election, including a new batch of results from a HuffPost/YouGov online survey of 1,000 Americans. The HuffPost/YouGov poll finds a significantly higher percentage of Americans who think Obama will accomplish more in his second term (39 percent) than those who think he will accomplish less (22 percent) or those who think he'll do about the same (25 percent) as he did in his first term.Jan. 18
OpEd News, Goldman's CEO and his pals want to increase the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare to 70. That would seriously harm, maybe kill many seniors, Michael Collins, Jan. 21, 2013. The Business Roundtable, wants you to wait until you're 70 years old before you get Social Security and Medicare benefits. This is just a reprise of the November 2012 dictate from the king of corporate cronyism, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. The boss announced, "So there will be things that, you know, the retirement age has to be changed, maybe some of the benefits have to be affected, maybe some of the inflation adjustments have to be revised. But in general, entitlements have to be slowed down and contained." Half of those 65 or older make $45,000 a year ($3,750 a month) or less. If you have to wait until 70 for Medicare, you can either pay monthly health insurance premiums of $1,000 to $3,000 a month (if you can get it) or you can learn pain and suffering up close without coverage. You can eat much less and downsize to substandard shelter to pay your health care costs (premiums and out-of-pocket expenses). Perhaps the combination of restricted health care, substandard diet, and inadequate shelter may even kill you, in which case the problem is solved. Imagine the possibilities for complications and tragedy while waiting for Medicare. There's a real genius to the Blankfein-Roundtable proposals that escapes public examination. The longer benefits are delayed, the more people will die before claiming any of the benefits.
Alternet/Salon, 12 ways Obama’s inauguration speech humiliated the Tea Party, Adele M. Stan, Jan. 22, 2013. After reclaiming the language of patriotism, Obama threw it back in the faces of the GOP in the name of liberalism. With its elegant rendering of the liberal agenda before the eyes of the American people, President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address was music to the ears of many a progressive. But to the ears of Tea Partyers and the Republican right, this inauguration speech, as well as the ceremony that surrounded it, was war — not just a war of words, but a war of prayer, a war of poetry and even, perhaps, a war of song. Driving the message home were the hands of the Fates, who conspired to see the second inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president fall on Martin Luther King Day, the national holiday whose very creation was opposed by so many who still today comprise the Republican Party’s right wing. Here we recount a dozen ways in which the president brought his fight to the right, in no uncertain terms, at his second inauguration.
Cato Institute, Citizens United: What Happened? What Now? Featuring John Samples, Cato Institute; Robert Bauer, Perkins Coie; Bradley Smith, Capital University School of Law; Ray LaRaja, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Michael Malbin, Campaign Finance Institute; Don McGahn, Federal Election Commission; and Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law School, Jan. 23, 2013. See video: CSPAN, Campaign Finance after Citizens United: What Happened? What Now?Jan. 23, 2013. (Video: 3 hours.) Three years ago the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United. Later, lower courts followed Citizens United in deciding SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission, the legal foundation for Super PACs. The nation has now experienced mid-term and president elections governed by these decisions. This conference will examine the consequences of Citizens United. Did anything change? Our experts will then turn toward the future and ask what policies should be enacted (or not) in light of experience and Supreme Court doctrine.
Huffington Post, Virginia Redistricting 2013: State GOP Rams Bill Through Senate In Absence Of Democratic Sen. Henry Marsh, Jan. 22, 2013. Virginia Democrats are raising hell after Republicans unexpectedly rammed a controversial redistricting bill through the state Senate on Monday, capitalizing on the absence of a Democratic lawmaker and civil rights leader who was in Washington for President Barack Obama's second inauguration. "The new redistricting map revises the districts created under the 2011 map," writes Talking Points Memo's Evan McMorris-Santoro, "and would take effect before the next state Senate elections in Virginia and would redraw district lines to maximize the number of safe GOP seats."
Huffington Post, Probe the Past to Protect the Future, Andrew Kreig, March 4, 2009. Wrong-doers and their apologists insist that the country should look forward for the betterment of all, and that any future problems will be dealt with fairly. Nonsense. As always, justice starts by a review of the evidence. "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said. But pest control is useful too. Either way, strong measures are required to build public confidence for legitimate initiatives on such complex questions as which companies are "too big to fail," and which ones should pay the price for their terrible decisions.
Huffington Post, Why the President ‘Stepped Out’ During His Inaugural Parade, Andrew Kreig, Jan. 21, 2009. Illustrating President Obama's ability to mix action with powerful symbolism, the public saw him suddenly climb from his armored limo during his Inaugural Parade and greet enthusiastic crowds assembled outside the National Archives and Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Catching Our Attention on other Justice, Media & Integrity Issues
Guardian, The Untouchables: How the Obama administration protected Wall Street from prosecutions, Glen Greenwald, Jan. 23, 2013. A new PBS Frontline report examines a profound failure of justice that should be causing serious social unrest, PBS' Frontline program on Tuesday night broadcast a new one-hour report on one of the greatest and most shameful failings of the Obama administration: the lack of even a single arrest or prosecution of any senior Wall Street banker for the systemic fraud that precipitated the 2008 financial crisis: a crisis from which millions of people around the world are still suffering. What this program particularly demonstrated was that the Obama justice department, in particular the Chief of its Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, never even tried to hold the high-level criminals accountable. What Obama justice officials did instead is exactly what they did in the face of high-level Bush era crimes of torture and warrantless eavesdropping: namely, acted to protect the most powerful factions in the society in the face of overwhelming evidence of serious criminality. Indeed, financial elites were not only vested with immunity for their fraud, but thrived as a result of it, even as ordinary Americans continue to suffer the effects of that crisis. Worst of all, Obama justice officials both shielded and feted these Wall Street oligarchs (who, just by the way, overwhelmingly supported Obama's 2008 presidential campaign) as they simultaneously prosecuted and imprisoned powerless Americans for far more tri
Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, The Swartz suicide and the sick culture of the DOJ, Harvey A. Silverglate, Jan. 23, 2013. The ill-considered prosecution leading to the suicide of computer prodigy Aaron Swartz is the most recent in a long line of abusive prosecutions coming out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, representing a disastrous culture shift. It sadly reflects what’s happened to the federal criminal courts, not only in Massachusetts but across the country. It’s difficult for lawyers to step back and view the larger picture of the unflattering system from which we derive our status and our living. But we have an ethical obligation to criticize the legal system when warranted. Who else, after all, knows as much about where the proverbial bodies are buried and is in as good a position to tell truth to power as members of the independent bar? Yet the palpable injustices flowing regularly out of the federal criminal courts have by and large escaped the critical scrutiny of the lawyers who are in the best position to say something. And judges tend not to recognize what to outsiders are serious flaws, because the system touts itself as the best and fairest in the world. Since the mid-1980s, a proliferation of vague and overlapping federal criminal statutes has given federal prosecutors the ability to indict, and convict, virtually anyone unfortunate enough to come within their sights. And sentencing guidelines confer yet additional power
Institute for Political Economy, The Institutionalization of Tyranny, Paul Craig Roberts, Jan. 18, 2013. Republicans and conservative Americans are still fighting Big Government in its welfare state form. Apparently, they have never heard of the militarized police state form of Big Government, or, if they have, they are comfortable with it and have no objection. Republicans, including those in the House and Senate, are content for big government to initiate wars without a declaration of war or even Congress’ assent, and to murder with drones citizens of countries with which Washington is not at war. Republicans do not mind that federal “security” agencies spy on American citizens without warrants and record every email, Internet site visited, Facebook posting, cell phone call, and credit card purchase. Republicans in Congress even voted to fund the massive structure in Utah in which this information is stored. But heaven forbid that big government should do anything for a poor person. Republicans have been fighting Social Security ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law in the 1930s, and they have been fighting Medicare ever since President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law in 1965 as part of the Great Society initiatives.