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Other View: A speech dictated by our times

3:09 PM, Jan. 23, 2013  |  Comments
President Barack Obama's second inaugural address was a campaign-style call to his political base.
President Barack Obama's second inaugural address was a campaign-style call to his political base.
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The toughest times tend to produce the greatest speeches, but the reverse is also true. Times like today's - when the economy is recovering but not flourishing, when one long war is over and another is winding down, when partisan gridlock stymies problem-solving - rarely yield memorable rhetoric that gets etched in stone.

President Obama's second inaugural address, delivered Monday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, proved no exception.

Obama's first inaugural speech came, as he put it in 2009, "amidst gathering clouds and raging storms." But the nation's financial crisis was largely overshadowed that day by the exuberance surrounding the swearing-in of the nation's first African-American president. Four years later, times are better but expectations are lower, and Monday's second inaugural reflected that reality.

The 18-minute speech was less an appeal for unity than a campaign-style call to the base, an eloquent if predictable recitation of core Democratic values such as women's rights, gay rights, the virtue of programs for the retired and the disabled, and the importance of tackling global warming and immigration reform.

That sent a reassuring signal to the Democrats and independents who helped re-elect the president, but reciting priorities and delivering solutions are two different things.

Domestically, the central job of Obama's second term is to find a rational compromise with Congress on the nation's chronic fiscal imbalance, and his speech came most alive when he addressed the intransigence that has blocked progress on this and other pressing national problems.

"Decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay," Obama said. "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act."

His target was a just-say-no Republican House that has turned almost every fiscal deadline into a crisis and treats compromise, particularly on taxes, as betrayal.

But Obama's criticism also applies to Democrats who draw lines around benefit programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Those programs do not, as Obama said in a thinly veiled swipe at the Republican ticket he defeated in November, necessarily turn recipients into "takers" who are dependent on big government. The entitlements are, however, the chief drivers of spending that the nation cannot afford.

Internationally, Obama declared that "a decade of war is now ending." But withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan hardly guarantees an end to conflict. Last week's terrorist attack in Algeria shows that the threat from al-Qaida and its affiliates continues, and it remains to be seen how the president can stop Iran's nuclear program without resorting to military force.

Achieving his domestic and foreign aims will require skills Obama lacked when he became president four years ago. The tougher negotiating style that got him a "fiscal cliff" deal and forced Republicans to back down on the debt limit suggests he has learned a few new tricks in time for his second term. He'll need them.

- USA TODAY

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