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How Will Obama Address Economy, Equality and Partisanship in Second Term?

January 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In his inaugural address, President Obama laid his plans for the next four years, including more attention to global warming and equal rights for gay Americans. Jeffrey Brown and guests discuss the tone and content of Obama's address and what they hope the president will do over the next four years.
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JEFFREY BROWN: So how is the president framing his second term?

Joining us now for a broad view: Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of the advocacy group PolicyLink in Oakland, the Rev. Adam Hamilton of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., and author of “When Christians Get It Wrong.”

As we saw, he delivered today’s sermon at the prayer service. Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at “The National Review,” columnist for Bloomberg View, and visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. And Trey Grayson, he was the Republican secretary of state in Kentucky, and is now director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.

And welcome to all of you.

And Angela Glover Blackwell, I think I will start with you. What did you hear in that speech? What vision was the president putting out there yesterday?

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL, PolicyLink: I heard a leader who is prepared to honestly take the American people into the future, a leader who wants America to return to first principles, of equality, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but tie them to the reality of today.

I heard a leader who understands that our today’s reality, becoming a nation in which the majority will be people of color very soon, is a nation that has the qualities and assets that this world without boundaries is demanding. So I was really delighted to see an embracing of the future, but also an embracing across struggles, mentioning Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall.

Our history as this nation has been one of, we achieve our best when we’re willing to struggle. So the embracing of struggle and also thinking about the generations that have to own today, but lead us in tomorrow, when he talked about four years from now, 40 years from now and 400 years from now, really made me see that he is not running away from our change and sees value in it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. All right.

Ramesh Ponnuru, what did you hear? I suspect something different.

RAMESH PONNURU, The National Review: Well, I did hear a president who is very interested in that kind of ideological struggle, but not terribly interested in unemployment.

It was really remarkable that wasn’t treated as a crisis, even though we have unemployment at about the same level as we had four years ago when he first took office. We have no sense from this inaugural address that the welfare state is facing any kind of long-term financing crisis or anything that would require more than a little bit of tweaking, some sort of technocratic change to bend the cost curve down.

So, in these senses, I think this was a speech that was sort of aggressively running away from reality. And that I think strikes me even more than the lack of bipartisanship and the aggressive support for big government, was that there’s just no sense of that these things are part of our reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rev. Hamilton, what did you hear? And you had an interesting look from the pulpit today.

REV. ADAM HAMILTON, United Methodist Church of the Resurrection: Sure.

Well, first of all, I think when the president is giving an inaugural address like this, he’s trying to cast a lofty vision for the future, rather than trying to get into the details of policy. And so, for me, I heard him speaking about equality. I heard him speaking about the vision of children being able to have a future with hope.

And I wasn’t going expecting him to give a detailed analysis of the economy today and what needs to be changed. I’m not suggesting that’s not important, but I was hearing him speak about lofty ideas of equality, freedom.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yet he did point to some specific things, as we heard in Gwen’s setup piece.

ADAM HAMILTON: That is true. That is true, especially when it came to global warming or addressing the global climate change and those kinds of things. I think he said we have to — we have to be willing to address these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Trey Grayson, what about you? What did you hear?

TREY GRAYSON, Harvard University: Well, I heard a pretty visionary, pretty articulate speech, articulating a progressive vision for the country.

I would agree with Ramesh that the lack of the economy or references to the deficit in the speech was a little surprising, given that that’s the — probably the biggest issue he’s going to face, at least in the first part of the term, with the sequester, the budget, trying to get a budget through, and the fiscal cliff and everything else, and the fact that that was the number one issue on voters’ minds. Even at the thematic level, that was missing. That was a bit of a surprise.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, were you surprised — to stay with you, were you surprised by the emphasis on things such as gay rights or climate change, some of the specifics that he did point to?

TREY GRAYSON: Yes, you know, he did get specific on those.

I wasn’t surprised on some of the issues that he picked. The one issue that I thought came across and maybe he will have the most impact by his words were the references and the discussion about gay equality.

That’s something where the country has moved really fast over the last couple of years. And I think, as a president, he may have the ability via the bully pulpit to really advance that particular issue. And that may be the most lasting impact of his speech.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, Angela Blackwell, to come back to where you opened this discussion, I was just thinking of the — what we heard this labeled by opponents, as an era of liberalism being back. Do you accept that? Did you hear that?

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I, as a person who is liberal and progressive, did feel that the agenda that I embraced was being put forward.

But I think that the is the agenda that the nation needs. I disagree with the observation that the economy wasn’t in this discussion, because there was a lot of discussion about inequality. The reference to we couldn’t survive as a nation half-slave and half-free led right into, we can’t survive as a nation where so few have so much and so many have so little.

The antidote to inequality is equity and full inclusion. That means jobs. That means investing in communities. So what we often label a liberal agenda is now an essential agenda. This is where America has to go to thrive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ramesh?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, look, I don’t think that the public thinks equality in the economy is more important than jobs or that the two things are the same.

But I think that we do basically agree that this is the liberal vision of government. It’s really striking how few tradeoffs the president is willing to acknowledge in his speech. There are no problems with entitlements. They don’t sap our initiative. There’s no reason to reduce or revamp them in any way because that would be walking back from our commitment to our senior citizens.

There is nothing that we cannot solve by an ever-larger government. In fact, that’s the story he tells about American history. American history is a story of our discovering our need for ever larger government.

Well, I am not sure that that’s at all what the public wanted when it elected him, but we’re going to find out over the next few years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re hearing this as a more aggressive stance, which is now, this is the way I want to go forward without bringing everyone along?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, look, there was nothing in this speech to bring along other people, the way previous inaugural addresses usually have tried to at least make some gesture toward the other party.

And I think that that is — you know, that’s not Republicans that Republicans should I think whine about. He did win the election. He’s entitled to try this very liberal strategy and see if it succeeds for him and if it’s the way to get his agenda through. I tend to have my doubts. But we’re all going to find out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Reverend Hamilton, you have been — by your role, you have been involved in all the social issues of our time. Did you hear the president making a kind of aggressive statement about, this is the way forward for all of us, or did you hear him reaching out to embrace people to help create that?

ADAM HAMILTON: Yes, I think that’s a great question.

I wish he had done more to reach out. In fact, that was the point of my message today at the National Cathedral was to say, you know, we need a new American vision that’s not just Democratic or not just Republican.

It has to be a new vision that brings people together. And if we had a vision with a couple of goals, key strategic goals that Republicans and Democrats have crafted together and say this is what we’re going to work together on over the next 10 years, even though we might disagree on a whole host of other things, it would have a huge impact on bringing Americans together.

And I wish that he had done more of that in the speech.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re saying — so you liked his message overall.

ADAM HAMILTON: I liked the idea of…

JEFFREY BROWN: But you didn’t like the lack of embrace?

ADAM HAMILTON: Right.

I would have loved for him to have done more to reach out to people across the line. And I think when the president recommends something, unfortunately, in the polarized place that we are today, the president makes a recommendation or puts forth a proposal, immediately, there’s going to be a negative response to that.

I think in bringing people together, which is what I’m hearing across the country, is please, President, bring us together, or, leaders of our government, bring us together, it’s going to have to be Republicans and Democrats working together to forge, whatever those, you know, visions, dreams, whatever you want to call them are, that we can work together on.

And then we’re going to disagree on a whole host of other issues. But it feels like to me — and I wish that he had done more in that regard. So, he clearly articulated what he’s always been saying — or what he’s been saying at least through the election and the campaign in concern for rights for people and in concern for both the elderly, as well as children in poverty, and looking at lifting up the middle class.

But, yes, I do think that there’s a need to bring us together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Trey Grayson, let me ask, what do you think about that question of how much he reached out? And, of course, this is relevant for going forward because there’s so much on the table now in Washington.

TREY GRAYSON: There is a lot on the table.

Earlier, somebody made the reference to the fact that there is also a State of the Union address which will come up in a few weeks. And that is really part two of the beginning of this term. And he’s going to set forth maybe a more specific policy agenda.

The one area where I – that I thought he empathized in his speech that perhaps could be an area for common ground is immigration.

Over the last week or so, you have seen Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida come up with a pretty comprehensive immigration reform package or ideas. And that could be a place where the president — and certainly Sen. Rubio, but to — other members of the Republican Party — could take an issue that’s hard — and it’s historically been hard to reach compromise on — and maybe find the common ground, find the solution.

So that might be something we might want to look out for over the next few weeks, in addition to all the talk about the economy and debt and deficits.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s your answer to what others have commented on here as to the kind of signal the president was sending as to what kind of leader he wants to be, you know, with his vision now or reaching across the aisle?

TREY GRAYSON: I thought it was more of an articulation of his vision, not as much signaling reaching across the aisle.

That was the message he ran on in his first race and a lot of the message of his first inaugural, less so in this particular speech. But, as Ramesh pointed out — and I agree with him — he won the election. It’s his opportunity to set forth that.

And we’re in a divided time right now. And so maybe this is the correct approach if he wants to advance those particular issues, but I would have liked to have seen a few more olive branches in the address.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Angela Blackwell, you talked about agreeing with the vision that he put forward. Now, you put it into policy terms or you put it into politics terms going forward, we have been talking about a divided Washington here.

What do you think is viable now? What do you want him to do next?

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: That’s where the reaching out really happens.

He wants to and I want to see him really invest in educating our children. That means universal preschool education. That’s true for somebody in rural Alabama and in Detroit. We really need to invest in infrastructure. He talked about that. That’s good for all of America, to physically be able to compete in the global economy.

But there must be a pathway to jobs for those who are too often left behind. We absolutely have to create a pathway to citizenship. We have to go beyond the DREAM Act to really including people, so that not only are they able to contribute, but the nation is able to benefit. We need to raise the minimum wage. We need to index it to inflation. These are things that aren’t just the people who are black and Latino. These help all Americans.

I think this reaching across requires that we see ourselves in the other. If we can see ourselves in the other, we realize that the agenda for those who are too often left behind is an American agenda.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I have to point out that here we are talking about divided Washington, right, divided America on many of those issues you just mentioned. Do you think the politics have changed dramatically enough for something to happen the way you would like to see them happen?

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: It’s possible. It is possible.

People know that something is different in this country. The majority of babies being born today are of color. We will soon be a nation of color. We saw it in our politics. We have to go beyond winning the vote to winning the future. That means we have to come up with strategies that allow those who are going to make up the majority of the nation help this nation be all that it can be.

I absolutely think the door is wide open. People want to change. Everybody has got to be sick of this divided nation. We have to start appreciating our assets and invest in them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ramesh Ponnuru, it didn’t sound as though Republicans were immediately falling in line, I guess, right? I mean, do the political battles just go on?

RAMESH PONNURU: Oh, I think so. I think that that really was more of a battle cry speech than a conciliatory speech.

JEFFREY BROWN: You do?

RAMESH PONNURU: The thing that strikes me about it, again, compared to the first inaugural address, that first inaugural address was more conciliatory, was more focused on the concerns about the economy than the more liberal elements of his agenda.

And yet that was at a time when there was a strong liberal Democratic majority in the U.S. House. Now there’s a Republican House. And yet he’s only moved further left rhetorically. I think almost everything that he was discussing, that we have been discussing here is going to be dead on arrival in the Republican House.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dead on arrival, all the issues we talked about?

RAMESH PONNURU: Almost everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gun control, immigration?

RAMESH PONNURU: There is a possibility — there is a possibility for something on immigration.

I think the assault weapons ban, he’s not going to get any action out of the House on that. He’s not going to, I think, see any cap-and-trade-type climate change legislation. And he is certainly not going to see any more high — any higher taxes coming out of the Republican Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Rev. Hamilton, I’m sure you started the day with some hope, right, in the church sermon. But where do you come out now after listening to this?

ADAM HAMILTON: Well, I think there’s still hope.

I think — I do think it’s critical, though, that we have a common vision that we work on, some way of bringing us together. And this is — in my sermon today with the president, I just said, it may be the most important thing that you have on your agenda is to bring us together. If you can find some way, if we can find some way to come together around a couple of common, you know, common objectives, that helps us resolve some of these other things.

But, right now, we’re so divided that no matter what comes up, we’re going to find the same gridlock that we have right now. And so I think there’s got to be — this has got to be an agenda — near the top of the agenda to say — I’m not minimizing anything else — those things all need to happen, but they’re — it seems as though they’re not going to happen until we figure out, how do we work together, how do we listen to one another, embrace the differences and find some way to forge forward?

And I don’t see much hope for — I guess I agree with you. I don’t see much hope for us passing — seeing much movement until we find some way to work together.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Trey Grayson, a last word from you, because you’re working there at a bipartisan, I guess, think tank on politics. What do you see?

TREY GRAYSON: Well, I’m always trying to look for the bright of side of things.

And one of my concerns when I look at Washington and some of the divides that are going on — and, as I said, I’m not sure this speech did much to address that — is that we care a lot about young people, not just college students, but young Americans. And they’re very cynical and distrustful of politics and government.

And my hope is that over the next few months, we will see some surprises that will cause these young people to say, hey, you know, government can work. Politics can work. They can actually address some of these issues and especially the long-term issues. And these are the folks that are going to have to pay off that debt that is getting larger and larger.

So, I’m still going to be optimistic, but we’re in a tough — I think it is going to be a tough couple years in Washington, unfortunately.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Trey Grayson, Angela Glover Blackwell, Rev. Adam Hamilton, and Ramesh Ponnuru, thank you, all four.

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: You’re welcome.

TREY GRAYSON: Thanks.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you.