The country was never more divided than during the Civil War. After four years of fighting and an estimated 750,000 deaths, the country was finally on the verge of peace in March, 1865, when President Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address.
In his brief speech—just 703 words—Lincoln struck a remarkably conciliatory tone. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
President Obama cites Lincoln as one of his heroes, and when he took his second Oath of Office Monday, he placed his left hand on the Bible that Lincoln used for his first inauguration in 1861 (the second Bible belonged to Martin Luther King,Jr.).
But any similarity of Obama’s speech to Lincoln’s stops there, since the President sounded more confrontational than accommodating.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” the President said. The choice of words was not an accident, though it was rather ironic.
Just a week earlier the President, during a news conference, accused some of his opponents of being absolutists who are trying to hold the economy ransom.
“They (Congressional Republicans) can act responsibly, and pay America’s bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy,” the President said.
That’s not the language of someone trying to negotiate a deal in the best interest of the country; those are fighting words.
As Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “No one has good faith but him. No one is sincere but him. Doesn’t this get boring, even to him?”
Obama’s first election victory was about hope and change, supposedly a defining shift in that body politic to a new post-partisan era. The result, however, has been even more partisanship.
The second election victory has emboldened the President. He doesn’t have to compromise, or even negotiate in good faith with the other side about getting a deal on big issues like spending.
In one part of his inaugural speech Obama rejected steep cuts in entitlement programs, but in the very next paragraph he promised to take on climate change because “failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
If the President is a believer in the science of global warming why isn’t he also a believer in the simple math of debt?
Barack Obama is being true to his progressive ideology, and that inspires the faithful who were kept under foot during the Bush years, but there’s no joy in his fight. It makes one long for the days of the Happy Warrior Hubert Humphrey, the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan or the profound likability of Bill Clinton.
In the very first sentence of his inaugural address, President John Kennedy said, “we observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.” Kennedy understood that after the narrowest of victories, it was inappropriate to spike the ball.
The President didn’t gloat yesterday, but he did signal that he’s primed for bloody political fights ahead. Sadly, there will be no binding up the nation’s wounds over the next four years.