Conservative columnists and their Republican congressional allies seem to be in a surly mood these days.
They went ballistic over President Barack Obama’s inaugural address, complaining that it was overly partisan, with some coming very close to suggesting it was written by a descendent of Marx and Engels.
They are mortified that the president is nominating people to his cabinet who actually agree with him on issues ranging from national defense, foreign affairs, taxes and spending. They are darkly hinting that what they suspected for years is now self-evident: that Obama is a liberal Democrat.
The fact is Obama was re-elected by a majority of Americans. He is supposed to try to set an agenda for his second term. Otherwise, what was the point of holding an election? He is certainly well within the mainstream of Democratic Party thinking in the postwar world.
The real problem with Obama’s inaugural speech was not that it leaned too far left or that it contained a couple of cheap shots against his opponents. Instead, the drawback was there were moments when it seemed disconnected from reality.
Take foreign affairs. “A decade of war is now ending,” Obama proclaimed just two days after three Americans were killed in Algeria as part of a terrorist attack.
He declared that “engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear” with other nations and used the phrase “peace in our time,” which may be the first time anyone has approvingly quoted Neville Chamberlain lately.
Not only did many conservatives disagree with those remarks, but so did Obama’s outgoing secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
Last week, she bluntly told a Senate committee that “we are in for a long-term struggle” against international terrorists and warned that the “United States must continue to lead . . . in the Middle East and all around the globe. We have come a long way in the past four years. We cannot afford to retreat now.”
Then there was Obama’s “oh by-the-way” mention of the federal debt, which is expected to grow by a few trillion dollars during the next decade.
He said the government “must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of the deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
To those hoping for major new efforts to reduce the massive federal deficit, those words went over badly.
In essence, Obama seemed to rule out any restraints in the growth of the entitlement programs of Social Security; Medicare, which pays for health coverage for the elderly; and Medicaid, which provides health coverage to low-income people.
Those programs, which automatically grow every year, are the driving force behind projected deficits for the next decade.
“It wasn’t terribly encouraging on that front, I’m afraid to say,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization in Washington devoted to smaller deficits.
“Social Security and Medicare have been positive accomplishments that we should be proud of,” Bixby said. “The problem is they are not sustainable in their current form. No matter how proud we are of the past, the future is cloudy.”
Instead, Obama opted for Ronald Reagan’s style of the 1980s, in which conservatives claimed we can have it all: tax cuts, more defense spending and balanced budgets. That proved to be an illusion.
To keep entitlements solvent and reduce the deficit will require huge tax increases on every income group in the United States. As Bixby said, Obama “missed an opportunity or dodged an obligation to prepare the public for the hard choices that are going to have to be made.”