A Damn Good Speech

I’m a little surprised that Mark hasn’t beaten me to the punch on this: a helluva speech by the President.  My personal favorite moment was when he noted that defending Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid “does not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”  Absolutely.  (This is why, by the way, that the most pro-entrepreneurial legislation of my political lifetime has been the Affordable Care Act: it allows people to open their own businesses without fear that they will no longer be able to obtain health insurance).

And by the way, Congressmember Ryan: f*ck you.

A friend wrote to me to say that celebrating this speech makes liberals a “cheap date” because it isn’t necessarily followed up by action.  It was a speech: unless he was going to announce a series of executive orders in it — which as far as I know has never been done in an inaugural –  all you’re going to get is rhetoric.  But good rhetoric it is, and rhetoric that progressives can use for the future — and demand that our elected officials uphold:

[W]e, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We  believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest  labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our  creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she  has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an  American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own…

[O]ur journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not  complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not  complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the  right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a  land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are  enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our  journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of  Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know  that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

President Obama cannot do this by himself, but he is doing the right things.  The fiscal cliff dealwas pretty good.  He has so far faced down the plutocrats on the debt ceiling. He appointed Jack Lew and Chuck Hagel and told the bad guys to pound sand.  He is turning Organizing for America into a 501(c)(4) instead of disbanding it.  He is, in other words, beginning to attempt to do to Movement Conservatism what Jefferson told his Attorney General he would do to the Federalist Party:

I shall . . . by the establishment of republican principles . . . .sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection for it.

Now THAT’S change I can believe in.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

37 thoughts on “A Damn Good Speech”

  1. I was waiting for you, Jon.

    (Actually, I was on an airplane.)

    Yes, a good speech. He wasn’t confrontational, but nevertheless he elicited hatred from the haters, because that’s who they are.

    1. elicit[ing] hatred from the haters – that’s a rather low bar, Mark, especially in this day and age. My 106 year-old grandma can jump over that, and she’s been in the ground for over three decades now.

  2. Jonathan, remember that TJ embraced most of the Federalist program and did something he would have ripped a Federalist president of doing when he unilaterally used government money to buy the Louisiana Territory without first consulting Congress. Does that mean Obama will finish Ronald Reagan’s destruction of the middle class? Who knows at this point. Those were pretty words, but mostly the words of a Sex and the City liberal who wouldn’t know the importance of a labor union even if he fell over one.

      1. I would say that published descriptions of Obama’s activities, being a community organizer in those days had very little to do with dealing with people who were in a union and even less today. Obama certainly wasn’t organizing to get people into unions. That much is clear.

        Obama doesn’t have any history as a union supporter before becoming president and has had what could charitably be called a strained relationship with unions almost from the moment he was sworn in. Unions strongly supported him throughout his first term in return for which he delivered simply the wonderfulness of himself as opposed to some of the more tangible expressions of support which the unions might have wished for. But the speech was a good one and one can only hope that Obama intends during his second term to repay the union movement for their crucial support during his campaigns for the presidency. A good start would be if the next secretary of Labor will be a strong union supporter who will enforce the law properly and give the unions the support they deserve.

    1. If Obama compromises with the Republicans, it will be because people like Mitchell won’t back him up.

      1. I would just point out that Obama enjoyed the strong support of a lot of people considered to be of what passes for the “left” in this country of which MoveOn.org and the Great Orange Satan might be thought of as examples. Speaking only for myself, he certainly entered office with my tepid support but if he had pursued initiatives calculated to appeal to people like me, I would have supported him strongly.

        Again, speaking only for myself, I see myself as a man of the center left. I want the policies of the center left because I believe them to be the right ones. I support politicians who fight for the policies of the center left. That is to say, I support the policies and not the man. I believe this has been the critical difference between many of those in the Democratic Party who support Obama because they believe in him and those who believe in the policies and not the man.

        If Obama compromises with the Republicans it won’t be Mitchell Freeman’s fault. Obama isn’t running for anything ever again. If he compromises with the Republicans it will by choice, not necessity.

        1. I simply must know — who is the Great Orange S—-?? I know when you tell me I will feel stupid, but I can’t think of anyone who fits that.

  3. I think it was the first speech Obama’s given that I have truly enjoyed. I didn’t get the reference to Paul Ryan. I suppose there’s never a time when it not worth telling Ryan f*ck himself but did he do something to related to the inauguration or were you telling him to f*ck himself on general principle, which is fine by me; I just didn’t understand the context.

      1. I get that and, believe me, there’s nobody on the face of this planet with a lower opinion of Paul Ryan but my question was did Paul Ryan do or say something related to today’s events (either MLK day or the inauguration) to warrant inclusion in a discussion of Obama’s speech.

        1. Ryan is a dedicated acolyte of Ayn Rand: he has said that Rand was the person who “ideas” got him involved in politics. He used to make his staff read Atlas Shrugged. And Rand is the prime exponent of the “makers versus takers” ideology. The whole gravamen of Atlas Shrugged is about how the makers go on strike and leave the takers to fend for themselves.

          1. JZ: The whole gravamen of Atlas Shrugged is about how the makers go on strike and leave the takers to fend for themselves.

            Betsy: How I wish they would.

            Well, they would, but they’re still waiting for one of the Galts to invent the magic free-energy machine and holographic force-field that makes it all possible. But once that happens (any day now — the fat cat population is notoriously full of skilled inventors with demonstrable skills at producing complex systems on their own), watch out — they’re going to simultaneously shut down all the monolithic big business and heavy industry in the country, leaving the markets to the more innovative and agile small businesses that actually fuel real national economic growth rather than just swallowing up smaller fish in order to grow the revenues of the “makers” in charge at the expense of laid-off taker-laborers. What a nightmare that will be!

          2. Heh, loved Taibi’s commentary at Koreyel’s link:

            You can smoke a whole ounce of the world’s most potent marijuana and not laugh a single time reading one of Rand’s books.

            True that. ‘Cept you’ll need more that just one oz to get through one of her books!

        2. Ah, then I have had no more luck finding it than you. I thought JZ’s point was that Obama threw in what amounts to a FU to Ryan with the takers line, and JZ was just summarizing it in plain language. Shrug.

  4. I don’t have time for post right now but I agree with Jonathan (and Mark). Standing in the crowd in front of the Capitol I am sure I missed some nuances but I have the strong sense that some of the instant commentators (such as a sourpuss David Ignatius on the Washington Post website) have missed the subtlety of the rhetorical approach. (Ignatius some what stupidly complains that the foreign policy parts of the speech are not dispositive of how to behave in particular crises — when only black and white statements could be, and such (including W’s “Bush doctrine” about anyone harboring terrorists would be ipso facto a foe (Pakistan?) and even Kennedy’s “bear any burden” … but that’s a longer argument also.) I especially liked the theme where Obama demolished the originalist school of constitutional interpretation (and the Tea Party view of the constitution and the Federal Government without ever naming his opponents or the doctrines he was arguing against, by just citing the history — When “we the people” recognized a moral or practical need, we changed the approach to government, and we need to continue to adapt in this way. Maybe it was just me also, but the President’s cadence in saying “We, the People, …” kept leading me to expect him to finish by saying “will never be defeated” … in an echo of many labor/left demonstrations — but of course he did not do so.

    While Washington and Cable punditry is so polarized that people are unlikely to say this, in fact the President went out of his way to engage some significant themes that are favorites of the Right. He talked significantly about American Exceptionalism (though he insisted on re-defining it from blind boosterism) and also about how advancing the cause of liberty around the world is in our interest as well as being a moral imperative. He explictly recognized the need to trim the increase of Medicare and other non-discretionary spending as part of eventual deficit reduction, but also contested the Right’s definition of why and how. And of course he addressed dealing with Climate Change as a generational and inter-generational imperative. His statement that we are not addressing the scope of government for all time but just for now is an insistence that the Right step away from Absolutist political combat. While in today’s climate no one should expect anyone on the Right to publicly recognize these as moves toward common ground, they will help significantly reduce the ability of the Right to attract adherents to their version of the American creed over time — because Obama is clearly laying claim to the same source of legitimacy that the Right needs to make their policies that hurt the majority carry any weight at all.

  5. Maybe I’m too easily dazzled, but having our re-elected black president invoking Stonewall and endorsing equal rights, including equal marriage rights, for gay people during his inaugural address seems to me like something important happening. I never thought I’d live to see a black president, and even after we got one, I never thought I’d live to hear a president say anything like what our re-elected black president said today. The fact that he also basically told the Republicans to suck his dick is semi-ironic icing on our cake.

    1. Yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty big deal. I did a read-through of the address when it was posted on the web, and other than the Prez coming down firmly on the left side of things, sticking a reference to Stonewall in a recitation of civil-rights activism and following with a pitch for equal rights was pretty cool to this gay boy. It just shows how much the mainstream has moved in a short time.

      1. I felt the same way when he mentioned parents of children with disabilities. It’s nice to be recognized among the rest of humanity.

        (Though it just now occurs to me that adult disability rights advocates might have found this mention rather weak).

  6. Read the whole thing this morning. The speech definitely has legs. Let us see whether it also has a spine.

  7. One of many links to the transcript.

    I liked the one minimalist sentence on the deficit – correctly defined as a health cost issue:

    We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.

    Compare a whole soaring paragraph on climate change and the energy transition.

    If this isn’t bait-and-switch, it’s very good news.

  8. I read the speech this morning and definitely like it. But why is everybody so shocked and/or elated that a Democratic President took the very popular and completely typical of Democratic politicians position of defending the continued existence of Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid?

    1. I want to welcome you back from wherever it is you’ve been since Obama’s first inaugural address. Since that place evidently lacked newspapers, television and internet access, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

  9. A fine speech. Surely, though, the mainstream media is engaged in a massive coverup. I’ve seen no reporting at all of wingnut heads exploding in the aftermath of Obama’s mention of Stonewall.

  10. Zasloff’s Jefferson quote is even more apropos with a bit more context, found here:

    The opinion I originally formed has never been changed, that such of the body of the people as thought themselves federalists, would find that they were in truth republicans, and would come over to us by degrees; but that their leaders had gone too far ever to change. Their bitterness increases with their desperation. They are trying slanders now which nothing could prompt but a gall which blinds their judgments as well as their consciences.

    I shall take no other revenge, than, by a steady pursuit of economy and peace, and by the establishment of republican principles in substance and in form, to sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection for it.

  11. It was a very good speech as evidenced by the number of Republican whiners who complained that the President exhibited partisanship by failing to reach across the aisle. After spending the last 4 years blocking every attempt the President has made to reach across the aisle, it takes more than chutzpah to make such a complaint.

    1. Yeah, reaching across the aisle is not necessarily called for when your opposition had publicly declared that their main public policy objective was to make you a one term president. It’s their crow to eat.

  12. “(This is why, by the way, that the most pro-entrepreneurial legislation of my political lifetime has been the Affordable Care Act: it allows people to open their own businesses without fear that they will no longer be able to obtain health insurance).”

    Then you have a _terrible_ messaging problem, because there seem to be a large number of entrepreneurs small, middle and large who disagree with you. It’s their contention that the costs (financial and regulatory) exceed the benefits. If you know better, perhaps you could convince them that you understand their operation better than they do?

    1. Sorry, I call bullsh*t. It’s not a question of whether Barack Obama understands a used-car dealer’s operation, or Wal-Mart’s, better than the used-car dealer or the Wal-Mart heirs do. They’re of course happy to leave their employees naked in the health insurance market and externalize the cost.

      It’s a question of people with entrepreneurial skills and ideas trapped in payroll jobs because their families can’t afford to go without health insurance if the idea bombs: as so many ideas do. This is one of the central points in Megan McArdle’s forthcoming book: that policies designed to mitigate risk can promote valuable risk-taking.

      1. “…policies designed to mitigate risk can promote valuable risk-taking.” Which is exactly what Michael Harrington told a group of us in a talk at a “youth” retreat in West Virginia. Especially regarding health care. In 1978. This is not something new. And we are starting to understand the McArdle-Kleiman relationship…She has written a book that might be worth a look before it appears on the remainder table.

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