President Obama’s speech Monday could well signal the inauguration of a new era.
Just as President Reagan’s 1980 election foreshadowed nearly 30 years of far-right dominance, Obama’s re-election heralds the rise of a center-left coalition that could fundamentally reconfigure the nation’s political map for years to come.
With a popular election mandate at his back, the Democratic president laid out confidently – at times defiantly – a list of policy choices anathema to Republicans who stubbornly tried to block every piece of progressive legislation during his first term.
Instead of platitudes that often mark presidential inaugural speeches, President Obama delivered a hard-hitting, eloquent defense of bedrock social programs, civil and immigrant rights, voting rights, gun control and more.
Of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the president declared, “These things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.”
Drawing on the democratic gains won and handed down by previous generations, the president hammered away at the refrain, “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 …,
“Until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,
“Until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants …
“Until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.”
Many had given up hope that climate change would even make it on the legislative agenda this year.
But the president’s remarks – no doubt encouraged by the election results and by renewed public awareness after Hurricane Sandy’s unprecedented devastation – highlighted society’s need to find immediate solutions to the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said.
“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms,” he added.
Not once did the president plead for bipartisanship as he had done during many first-term speeches.
No need for that this time.
Republicans and the right are on the defensive after their trouncing in the elections.
Public opinion has decidedly turned against Republicans, much of their agenda, and their obstructionist tactics.
This time it was more a clarion call for the people to exercise their “power to set this country’s course.”
“You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift,” he said.
This time the president is taking the fight deep into Republican territory, appealing directly to constituents including Republicans to act in their own self-interest to pressure their congressional representatives.
The movements and organizations that played pivotal roles in the election victory are still in campaign mode.
Despite the holiday season, they functioned that way during the congressional lame duck session.
To no small degree, the mobilization of thousands of members of unions, civil rights and other progressive movements – including in congressional districts represented by Republicans and conservative Democrats – helped force recalcitrant legislators to make concessions on taxing the rich and other things.
Since the New Year, these movements and organizations are mobilizing their bases like no other post-election period in our lifetimes for the coming battles on “sequestration” that threatens cuts to social programs, and on raising the federal debt ceiling.
These include the newly-launched Organizing for Action (Organizing for America’s successor with close ties to the Obama administration); a united labor movement, its affiliates and associated formations; civil rights organizations; MoveOn.org and other progressive social movements.
But don’t look for miracles overnight.
Gains can be expected to be modest at best, given the Republicans’ continuing control of the House and the role played by conservative Democrats.
As for the Senate, archaic filibuster rules requiring a 60 percent majority make it hard to pass legislation opposed by Republicans, sometimes with help from conservative Democrats.
During the lame-duck session the pre-election gridlock was overcome in large measure thanks to the election mandate favoring the center-left wing of the Democratic Party, and the mass outcry and grassroots mobilization.
Don’t expect “politically correct,” flawless legislation.
The legislative process can be compared to a heavy cargo train, slow to pick up speed, faltering here and there, but hard to stop once it gathers momentum, creating the potential for more fundamental reforms in due time.
Combined with the economic crisis still battering the nation – and especially working-class and middle-class families – this political dynamic opens space for labor and allied progressive social forces to play a more dominant role in an ever-expanding center-left, multi-class coalition against the right.
It will allow labor and the core progressive social movements and forces to put forth more advanced demands with the potential to win, bringing much-needed relief to millions and the prospect of more fundamental societal changes.
Photo: President Barack Obama receives the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts as first lady Michelle Obamas and their daughters Malia and Sasha look on at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Jan. 21, 2013. Carolyn Kaster/AP