For Obama, a second chance for a speech for the ages

This Jan. 20, 1961 black-and-white file photo shows President John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address after taking the oath of office, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sixteen presidents before Barack Obama got a second chance at giving an inaugural address for the ages. Most didn’t make much of it. Abraham Lincoln is the grand exception. (AP Photo, File)
This Jan. 20, 1961 black-and-white file photo shows President John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address after taking the oath of office, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sixteen presidents before Barack Obama got a second chance at giving an inaugural address for the ages. Most didn’t make much of it. Abraham Lincoln is the grand exception.
(AP Photo, File)

Sixteen presidents before Barack Obama got a second chance at giving an inaugural address for the ages. Most didn’t make much of it.

George Washington’s remarks the second time around were admirably succinct — only 135 words — but hardly qualify as an address.

Thomas Jefferson, who laid out a masterful brief on democracy at his first oath-taking, spent much of his second complaining that the press was telling lies about him. Ulysses S. Grant also began his second term by grousing that he’d been slandered, although it’s unlikely those who had heard his first inaugural were expecting much better.

Abraham Lincoln is the grand exception.

Just matching his first offering, with its lyric appeal to the “better angels of our nature,” would have been a feat. On his second try, Lincoln brought forth the most-acclaimed inaugural address ever, one of the great American speeches. Four years of civil war at last coming to a close, he summoned his countrymen to bind up the nation’s wounds, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Such poetic lightning is unlikely to strike again.

Indeed, expectations for inaugural eloquence are low these days, giving Obama some breathing room as he prepares for Monday.

“Most inaugural addresses are just pedestrian,” said Martin J. Medhurst, a professor of politics and rhetoric at Baylor University. Their function is ceremonial; they lack emotion and urgency.

After reading all 56 inaugural addresses to date, presidential historian Charles O. Jones found: “A lot of them, frankly, are highly forgettable.”

And second inaugurals? Even worse.

“Reality has set in,” Medhurst said. “You don’t have these grand visions for change you had when you were first coming into office.”

Lincoln’s brilliance aside, the phrasings that gleam brightest in American memory came from newly minted presidents: Franklin Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Ronald Reagan’s “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

After four years of familiarity in the White House, does Obama stand any chance of speaking inaugural words that will long endure?

There are a couple of factors in his favor.

His gifts as an orator, for one. Obama is renowned for his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote, his Philadelphia meditation on race, his victory speeches in the 2008 primaries, his Nobel Prize acceptance.

Nonetheless, his first inaugural address seemed overwhelmed by the historic impact of the moment — an event that drew nearly 2 million people to the National Mall and seemed to transcend political ideology. Perhaps the speech’s most powerful line was Obama’s noting that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

“The only thing anyone remembers about that one is that the first African-American president was inaugurated,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The soaring rhetoric so many Americans expect from Obama was missing that day. Jamieson said the speech lacked what an inaugural address needs to make history’s short list: a clearly communicated, overarching theme and a memorable line that encapsulates it.

His “new era of responsibility” didn’t grab the popular imagination.

Medhurst says that speech, though little remembered, was actually better than most inaugural efforts because it worked as a unified whole to lay out Obama’s vision. Yet he doesn’t have high hopes for Jan. 21.

“If his second inaugural ends up being a speech he’s remembered for I will be astounded, because that just almost never happens,” Medhurst said.

Lowered expectations and muted excitement may ease the pressure on the president and his speechwriters this time around.

Another break for them, ironically: Four years after the first swearing-in, the United States is still mired in serious troubles that need talking about.

Bad times make better speeches, said Jones, because they give a returning president something to say beyond “here I am, I got re-elected, let’s push on.”

He points to FDR’s second inaugural during the Great Depression (“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished”) and Woodrow Wilson’s address preparing Americans to enter World War I (“There can be no turning back”).

Today’s worries — anxiety about joblessness, a sense of political disarray, fear that the nation is in chronic decline — are less dire than what Roosevelt and Wilson faced. Yet they could create a backdrop for resolve and yes-we-can inspiration.

“This is a moment in which the country is looking to the president to assure us that we remain a great nation, that our future is going to be better than our past, and here are the principles that will enable us to do this,” Jamieson said.

“You have the pieces on the table to deliver a great speech,” she said. “The question is will he do it?”

And if Obama does, the next question becomes: Can he live up to it? A great inaugural address is also measured by how well its promise is fulfilled.

No matter how eloquent the wording, there was no chance history would remember Richard Nixon for his second inaugural pledge: “to make these next four years the best four years in America’s history.”


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Obama: GOP out to kill Social Security

President Barack Obama (AP)

President Barack Obama used the anniversary of Social Security to trumpet Democrats’ support for the popular program and accuse Republicans of trying to destroy it.

Seventy-five years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Social Security into law, Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday: “We have an obligation to keep that promise, to safeguard Social Security for our seniors, people with disabilities and all Americans — today, tomorrow and forever.”

Some Republican leaders in Congress are “pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall,” Obama said.

He contended that such privatization was “an ill-conceived idea that would add trillions of dollars to our budget deficit while tying your benefits to the whims of Wall Street traders and the ups and downs of the stock market.”

Most Republicans, in fact, are wary of touching that idea, because Social Security is virtually sacrosanct to voters, particularly seniors.

Nonetheless, Democrats have been able to seize on the issue because of a proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, that would allow younger people to put Social Security money into personal accounts.

Ryan’s idea is similar to a proposal pushed unsuccessfully by former President George W. Bush. It’s not been endorsed by party leaders and has attracted only a small number of GOP co-sponsors.

With Social Security’s finances strained, policymakers talk frequently about the need to address the solvency of the entitlement program. How to do so is less clear, as Obama’s comments Saturday underscored.

Obama said he’s “committed to working with anyone, Democrat or Republican, who wants to strengthen Social Security.” But he proposed no ideas for doing that.

Many Democrats adamantly oppose any cut in benefits to reduce costs and some won’t accept a gradual increase in the retirement age, something that was done in the last overhaul in 1983. Republicans say an increase in Social Security taxes is out of the question, even for the wealthy.

Unless Congress acts, Social Security’s combined retirement and disability trust funds are expected to run out of money in 2037. At that point, Social Security will collect enough in payroll taxes to cover about three-fourths of the benefits.

Obama has created a bipartisan fiscal commission that is supposed to come up with recommendations in December on improving the government’s troubled finances and has said everything should be on the table.

Republicans used their weekend address to accuse Democrats of pursuing an “extreme ideologically driven agenda” that threatens the nation’s economic recovery.

“I am deeply concerned about the direction we’re heading in right now,” said former Rep. Pat Toomey, speaking for the GOP. “That direction is being driven by extreme policies that are coming from one-party domination of government in Washington. … It’s time we put some real checks and balances back in place this November.”

Toomey, the GOP Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, focused on bailouts for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the car companies; the economic stimulus legislation that has failed to cut unemployment rates; and Obama’s health care law.

“Now, where do all these bailouts, takeovers and spending sprees leave us?” Toomey asked. “They leave us with a weak economy without job growth and with a mountain of debt for our kids.”



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Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Right wing rewrites history in real time

A bust of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA (AP)

The rabid right wants to rewrite history and in states like Texas they are already doing so.

Conservatives in the Lone Star state want the state school board to rewrite teaching guidelines and force schools to downplay the role that Thomas Jefferson played in American history while praising right-wingers like Phyllis Schlafly and challenging the Constitutional concept that separates church in state.

And that’s not all. Writes Steven Thomma of McClatchy Newspapers:

In articles and speeches, on radio and TV, conservatives are working to redefine major turning points and influential figures in American history, often to slam liberals, promote Republicans and reinforce their positions in today’s politics.

The Jamestown settlers? Socialists. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton ? Ill-informed professors made up all that bunk about him advocating a strong central government.

Theodore Roosevelt ? Another socialist. Franklin D. Roosevelt ? Not only did he not end the Great Depression, he also created it.

Joe McCarthy ? Liberals lied about him. He was a hero.

The effort is a classic right-wing ploy: Ignore the lessons of history and create fantasies that never existing.

Conservatives, of course, see it differently.

“We are adding balance,” Texas school board member Don McLeroy claims. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

Historians often debate the “official versions” of history but the current effort by conservative is not debate…it’s an attempt to hijack the truth and replace it with propaganda.

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Obama succeeded where so many others failed

President Obama: How did he pull it off? (AP)

Rarely does the government, that big, clumsy, poorly regarded oaf, pull off anything short of war that touches all lives with one act, one stroke of a president’s pen. Such a moment has come.

After a year of riotous argument, decades of failure and a century of spoiled hopes, the United States is reaching for a system of medical care that extends coverage nearly to all citizens. The change that’s coming will reshape a sixth of the economy and shatter the status quo.

To the ardent liberal, President Barack Obama’s health care plan, passed by the House on Sunday night, is a shadow of what should have been, sapped by dispiriting downsizing and trade-offs.

To the loud foe on the right, it is a dreadful expansion of the nanny state.

To history, it is likely to be judged alongside the boldest acts of presidents and Congress in the pantheon of domestic affairs. Think of the guaranteed federal pensions of Social Security, socialized medicine for the old and poor, the civil rights remedies to inequality.

Change is coming, but in steps, not overnight. The major expansion of coverage to 32 million people — powered by subsidies, employer obligations, a mandate for most Americans to carry insurance, new places to buy it and rules barring insurance companies from turning sick people away — is four years out.

In contrast, on June 30, 1966, after a titanic struggle capped by the bill signing a year earlier, President Lyndon Johnson launched government health insurance for the elderly with three simple words, as if flicking a switch: “Medicare begins tomorrow.”

Obama practically needs a spreadsheet to tell people what’s going on and when with the law he will sign after the Senate takes final action this week.

Yet he and LBJ share a distinction: They are the only two presidents to succeed with a transcendent health care law.

“We rose above the weight of our politics,” Obama said late Sunday night in relishing the House victory on a 219-212 vote. “We proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things.”

You can be sure Obama, a student of history, is aware of how LBJ captured the moment when Medicare became law with his pen. That happened in Independence, Mo., in the presence of the very first American to sign up for the program: Harry Truman. The ex-president had ended a world war but could not achieve national health insurance in his time.

“Care for the sick, serenity for the fearful,” Johnson promised that day. “In this town, and a thousand other towns like it, there are men and women in pain who will now find ease.”

Said Truman: “I am glad to have lived this long.”

Ted Kennedy lived long enough to see a goal of his lifetime take shape but not long enough for it to happen. His death last summer was almost the death of the whole plan because a Republican won his Senate seat, changed the voting balance and left despondent Democrats in search of a second wind, which they found.

Why is this so hard? In part, because self-reliance and suspicion of a strong central government intruding into people’s lives are rooted in the founding of the republic, and still strong.

In 1854, President Franklin Pierce vetoed a national mental health bill on the basis that it would be unconstitutional to treat health as anything but a private matter that is none of the government’s business.

Seventy-five years later, the American Medical Association denounced proposals for organized medical services as an “incitement to revolution” at the hands of “Medical Soviets.”

And that wasn’t even about government-run health care. The AMA’s fierce opposition to collectivism included objections to private health insurance, the norm today, and the pooling of doctors into what became health maintenance organizations decades later.

No wonder would-be health reformers were thwarted one generation after another even as they made deep imprints on the nation in other ways.

Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t do it — and he’s carved into Mount Rushmore.

Franklin D. Roosevelt rewrote the social compact with his job and retirement security and regulatory expansion, all in the jagged teeth of the Depression, then took the nation to war. He made national health insurance a second-tier priority and it eluded him.

Even so, social responsibility for medicine grew.

In 1930, citizens paid nearly 80 percent of the nation’s medical costs from their own pocket. Government at all levels covered a mere 14 percent, with industry and philanthropy picking up the few remaining crumbs. Insurance was barely in the picture.

Federal and state programs now cover half the cost of health care purchased in the country and were expected to go over 50 percent in the next year or two even absent Obama’s plan. By that measure, the government takeover of health care that opponents warn about is happening regardless of congressional action.

Why the creep of government in health care? In part, because individualism isn’t the entire American story. The idea of watching out for each other is also in the nation’s fabric.

Besides, as much as Americans hate overbearing government and higher taxes, give them a federal benefit and then just try to take it away. Today’s hot potato becomes tomorrow’s cherished check.

That’s one reason government programs grow — and why Democrats dared to push for a less than popular package mere months from congressional elections, when people were telling their leaders to create jobs instead.

Johnson, full of beans after his Medicare victory, realized all of this.

“The doubters predicted a scandal; we gave them a success story,” he crowed a month after the law took effect, as hundreds of thousands of patients entered hospitals for treatment covered by the government and some 6 million children and needy adults began getting benefits.

“Where are the doubters tonight?” he asked. “Where are the prophets of crisis and catastrophe? Well, some of them are signing their applications; some of them are mailing in their Medicare cards because they now want to share in the success of this program.”

Obama can only hope for such a first-blush reception. He took on the cause of universal coverage after a campaign in which he did not promise it, intending only to secure insurance for all children and shrink the pool of uninsured adults. His health care ambition grew in office, quickly.

More than a quarter century before, Ted Kennedy came close to the prize with none other than the Republican president, Richard Nixon, who embraced ideas that mainstream Republicans today cannot tolerate. Nixon was ready to force businesses to provide health insurance to their workers or pay heavy penalties.

Sound familiar? It will.

At its core, Nixon’s proposal is a pillar of Obama’s plan today. Nixon’s willingness to subsidize coverage for the working poor is also seen in the plan, though writ larger.

Back then, Kennedy’s union and liberal allies gambled that by spurning Nixon, they’d get something better later. They didn’t. In similar fashion years after that, President Bill Clinton aimed high and crashed hard.

Clinton no doubt drew on his own failure when, in December, he advised Democrats to pass what they could manage and not make it an all-or-nothing fight. “America,” he said, “can’t afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Obama absorbed these lessons.

For him, a system with government as the sole or principal payer of everyone’s medical bills was a nonstarter, nice for the ideologues and other countries but not the American way. He would have liked the option of a government-run plan competing in the marketplace, but didn’t need it.

For months he stood so far back from the legislative nitty-gritty that it was hard to tell what he stood for.

In the end, he stood for more than the incremental steps that succeeded in the past, and for less than the towering ideas that failed.

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Bitter partisanship not new in America

The current partisan divide is as stark and nasty as any in recent history and on almost every issue — from health care to energy independence to reviving the economy — there’s little or no effort to find common ground.

But fierce political battle is also a tradition ingrained in American history. If today’s hostile environment is particularly intense, it’s downright genteel compared to many battles of the past.

The Civil War, when anti- and pro-slavery forces split the nation, is the most extreme example. But there’s also the beginning of the 20th century, when the country was becoming more urban and trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt was redefining the role of government.

The current economic troubles have collided with President Barack Obama‘s efforts to change government amid waves of public anger and protest movements like the tea party.

The angry mood was so discouraging for Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh that the Democrat recently said “I do not love Congress” as he announced he would not run for re-election.

His sentiments have been heard before.

Party politics, President George Washington said in his farewell address in 1796, “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms.” It “kindles the animosity of one part against another (and) foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

After two centuries, the nation continues to ignore its founding father’s message.

“We’ve had partisanship ever since we’ve had federal government,” Senate historian Donald Ritchie said. “Bipartisanship is really the exception to the rule.”

Partisanship got off to a raucous start in the presidential election of 1800 when the incumbent, John Adams, a Federalist, faced his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican. Adams’ supporters portrayed Jefferson as a libertine who would bring French Revolution-style anarchy to the country. Adams was branded a monarchist and characterized as toothless and senile.

The election’s repercussions were deadly. Jefferson beat Adams, but under the electoral system at the time the House had to decide between Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr, who received the same number of electoral votes. Federalist Alexander Hamilton helped sway the vote to Jefferson, a source of personal animosity that led to a duel in 1804 where Burr shot and killed Hamilton.

But it wasn’t until the 1830s — when populist Democrats led by Andrew Jackson took control of the government — that party politics as we know it today really began to take shape, says Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University. Jackson’s opponents referred to him as “jackass,” often credited as the source of the donkey as the Democratic Party‘s symbol.

Binder said waves of partisanship tend to coincide with major changes to the nation as a whole.

The most dramatic example came in the middle of the 19th century. In 1856, Republican abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner, in a Senate speech, accused a Democratic colleague, Andrew Butler of South Carolina, of taking an ugly mistress, “the harlot, slavery.” Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina, Butler’s relative, entered the Senate chamber and beat Sumner with a cane, nearly killing him.

The redefinition that developed under Teddy Roosevelt became even more pronounced during the Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt‘s Democrats and the Republicans debated big government and fought over the creation of Social Security.

The golden age of bipartisanship, to the extent it existed, came in the 1940s through the 1960s, when politicians united behind World War II and the Cold War and neither party had a clearcut ideology. Democrats had their Northern liberals and Southern conservatives, while the GOP was divided between Goldwater Republicans and Rockefeller Republicans.

That all began to change with the civil rights movement and the Republican takeover of the South. After that, said Ritchie, “the Democrats became the liberal party and Republicans the conservatives. There just aren’t that many people in the middle who can be persuaded to break rank.”

The Congressional Quarterly, which tracks voting trends, says that in 2009 both House and Senate Democrats voted with their party 91 percent of the time on votes where the two parties were at odds. That was at or near record levels of unity for both. House and Senate Republicans were nearly as unified.

That’s a sharp contrast to 1968, when only 51 percent of Senate Democrats backed their party on so-called party unity votes, or 1970, when only 56 percent of Senate Republicans fell in line with their party position.

“Clearly you see the country moving into rival camps much more readily and that filters through to the Congress in a hurry,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has served in the House and Senate for nearly three decades and is known for working well with Republicans.

In the 1980s, he said, there were sharp philosophical differences but it was still possible for President Ronald Reagan and his main antagonist in Congress, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, to work together on Social Security reform.

Voters are disgusted that the two sides increasingly are unable to work together, Wyden said. But he acknowledged it’s not going to change until more voters convey that to their representatives in Congress.

According to Wyden:

“It’s a lot easier for people to say, ‘Look I’m going to go with my partisan friends and try to avoid the shrapnel.'”

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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