Yet Obama’s address was firmly in the mainstream — of both the country and the Democratic Party, which has absorbed the lessons of its post-1968 defeats and synthesized into its core the New Democratic values of the Clinton era. The speech sounded so robustly liberal not because the president or his party has changed but because the Republican Party has, moving far outside the norms of American political thought.
Defending the idea of a social safety net to guard against the vagaries of life is hardly radical. President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law extensions of Social Security; President Ronald Reagan worked with House Speaker Tip O’Neill to save Social Security in 1983; President George W. Bush created the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
But in a world in which Republicans have endorsed a budget that would eviscerate Medicaid and turn it into a block grant and that would change Medicare into a voucher program whose value would quickly be overtaken by inflation, protecting the integrity of these programs suddenly sounds bold. Note that Obama did not say these programs were immune from reform. And while an inaugural address is hardly the place to rattle off numbers, Obama could have added that last year he put forward $350 billion in health entitlement savings on top of the $716 billion in Medicare savings he signed into law in his first term, cuts that Republicans tried to use as a cudgel against Democrats last year.
Did Obama call for a new entitlement to deal with our economic woes? No.
In fact, keeping with the New Democratic approach, Obama rejected the old-time religion of equality of outcome and framed his vision as one of equality of opportunity: “We must . . . empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.” Obama put forward neither a new government agency nor a guarantee of success. “Hard work and personal responsibility,” Obama reminded us, “are constants in our character.” Rather than relaunch the War on Poverty, Obama’s economic focus was the middle class and those striving to get there.
These differences may sound subtle, but they were an important shift in the Democratic Party’s public philosophy. In the 1990s, this change was controversial (recall the fight over welfare reform), but now it is easy to miss because opportunity and responsibility are so deeply embedded in the party’s DNA.