Inaugural Speech, Part II

When President Obama delivered his first inaugural address four years ago, he was speaking to a nation mired in two wars and facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Yesterday, his second inaugural address focused less on economic issues and foreign policy, and more on social issues, ranging from gay rights to global warming to gun control.

He made clear his intention to help the middle class, including strong resistance to cutting entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. As an article in The Washington Post noted, “He embraced more clearly than he has in the past a liberal view of government activism” – which includes protecting policies and programs that “have reflected essential Democratic priorities for generations of voters.”

Obama’s tone suggested more partisanship and less willingness to compromise with Republicans during what will likely be a hard-fought effort to pass his agenda before leaving the presidency for good in four years.

Obama’s address has inspired a variety of reactions, depending on individual perspectives. For example, “as an economist focused on policy,” says Olivia Mitchell, Wharton professor of business economics and public policy, “I thought this was a key section: ‘We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.’”

This statement, notes Mitchell, “emphasized only the benefits of social protection. But the President never acknowledged many programs’ negative influences on a variety of important economic outcomes. For instance, research has confirmed that the Medicaid program discourages most people from taking steps to save and insure against long-term care expenses. The structure of the Social Security program discourages private saving, and the program’s impending insolvency threatens retirement security for millions. The Disability Insurance program has made deep inroads into the nation’s labor market. Higher tax rates discourage people from working and encourage early retirement. In sum, I would have liked to have seen the President indicate his awareness of these counterbalancing factors.”

Wharton professor of health care management Mark V. Pauly says he was “a little disappointed in the treatment of health care and the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The President seems to want to defend them not only as programs that will provide benefits to those who need help, but to protect them from privatization of any sort.”

While that is a legitimate viewpoint, Pauly adds, “it seems more limiting than need be, though obviously congenial to the liberal base. [Obama] did imply he was going to control Medicare cost without recourse to any of the alternatives favored by his opponents. I don’t know how that can be done. We can hope and pray for lower rates of spending growth, but we still search for mechanisms that can bring it about without doing more harm than good.” At this point, Pauly adds, “I do not know of any magic in the pipeline of either party.”

Obama also emphasized the importance of all citizens participating in efforts to support his second-term agenda. Along those lines, he has endorsed the establishment of a nonprofit group called Organizing for Action, which will focus on reform in such areas as immigration and gun control.

One of the most oft-cited sections of Obama’s inaugural address was his comments on equal rights for women, African Americans and the LBGT community. “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall…. It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts … until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote….”

In comments directed to a large majority of Americans, Obama also noted that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it…. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God, but also in our own.”

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