President Obama’s inaugural address on Monday outlined, effectively if broadly, his agenda for his final term. His challenge will be to translate his inspirational rhetoric into productive action, overcoming both Republican opponents who have worked to thwart him at every turn and his own first-term lapses of leadership. His success in this effort will define not only his own legacy but also the nation’s long-term prospects.
In his speech, the President properly called on Americans to maintain “fidelity to our founding principles” while accepting “new responses to new problems.” He cited a series of vital issues on which he will seek action in his second term: curtailing gun violence, achieving immigration reform, starting to reverse the effects of man-made climate change, promoting same-sex marriage equality, seeking economic parity for women, preserving the safety net for vulnerable Americans, investing in better education and infrastructure, resisting efforts to disfranchise voters, and keeping the nation’s defense strong. These are all admirable objectives.
No issue, though, is likely to do more to define Mr. Obama’s second term — and his presidency — than effective action to control and reduce the nation’s $16 trillion debt. The President briefly alluded to this challenge when he spoke of the need to “revamp our tax code” and to “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”
That task is more difficult now, because presidents’ economic performance historically deteriorates during their second term. But fiscal solvency is a basic matter of both national security and global leadership, and President Obama and Congress cannot put it off any longer.
In recent weeks, Republican lawmakers have capitulated, if partially and grudgingly, on such matters as raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and not using the debt ceiling again as an instrument of partisan extortion. It’s time for the President and congressional Democrats to respond with meaningful proposals to reduce federal spending, including on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Entitlement reform need not be a matter of, as Mr. Obama warned in his speech, abandoning the ideal that “every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.” He properly rejected GOP orthodoxy that safety-net programs “make us a nation of takers,” arguing instead that “they free us to take the risks that make our country great.”
But entitlement costs could be curbed by doing such things as working to cut health-care expenses overall, subjecting cost-of-living increases to a more realistic measure of inflation, and linking benefits more closely to ability to pay. Now that the nation’s economy is recovering, albeit slowly, the President would usefully lead such a program.
Even as Mr. Obama noted in his speech that “a decade of war is now ending,” he pledged that the United States will remain engaged with the rest of the world while it tackles domestic problems. “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe,” he said, adding that “no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”
That commitment is critical as well. Progress on issues such as climate change and global economic openness will require harmonious relations with China. And American participation remains vital in bringing peace to the Middle East by promoting a two-state accord between Israel and the Palestinians, and by encouraging the best features of the Arab Spring while resisting its excesses.
The President conveyed an important message when he asserted that Americans “cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” The most immediate audience for that admonition was in Washington, but all citizens must take it to heart.
President Obama did valuable things in his first term against terrific obstacles: preserving the nation’s economic solvency, promoting reform of the health-care system and financial markets, and helping rescue the nation’s auto industry.
Things won’t get easier in his second term. But if, as the President said Monday, our nation is “made for this moment,” Americans have the opportunity to work together to make the most of it.