Last week President Obama gave liberals the speech they wanted to hear: His rhetoric was lofty, historically conscious and unabashedly progressive. Now that the goose bumps have settled, however, we will have to wait and see whether his message proves hollow or if he can deliver.

From a political standpoint, things look both good and bad for the president. After winning the fiscal cliff standoff and with House Republicans set to cave on the debt ceiling as well, perhaps a more activist Congress is budding. At the same time, however, budgetary issues like these are dangerous for the Republicans. If they play chicken with Social Security and Veterans’ benefits, they are in for an earful from their constituents, and they know that. It is unclear whether Congress actually wants to play ball or if John Boehner has simply learned to choose his battles.

When it comes to social issues held most dearly by the left, I would not be so optimistic. After asserting himself as the first president to make specific references to both the rights of the LGBT community and global warming in an inaugural address, as well as having once again championed a progressive immigration platform in public, Obama will have a tough time surpassing the bar that he’s set for himself.

Given the reactionary nature of the Republican Party (not all Republicans, but definitely their representatives), it is hard to see any comprehensive immigration bill being passed with such a divided Congress, let alone a progressive one. Although we might ask ourselves if another large, convoluted bill that absorbs a great deal of political energies (think the Affordable Care Act) is such a good idea. Maybe smaller, more specialized laws would be better and also easier to feed through the legislative process, although those tend to generate less media attention.

When it comes to global warming, the president also stands to underwhelm environmentalists. The XL Pipeline — that “job-creating” river of oil that conservatives would like to stretch from northwestern Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas — is set to rear its disastrous head once more this year and many expect the president to cave, allowing the production and shipment of Canada’s tar sands. The agreement reached the first time Obama had to decide on this issue only kicked the can further down the road until after the election, perhaps until after the president could be certain that his name would never appear on a ballot again. After all, a second-term president is much more liberated in terms of pissing off people with some impunity and that means both enemies, such as gun advocates, and friends, like environmentalists. Economic pressure to put Americans back to work could be too much for the president to make the responsible decision, but we’ll see.

All in all, as someone far left of center, I was happy to see a marked change in Obama’s tone since the beginning of his second term. But after all, politicians in this country are first and foremost masters of rhetoric; that is, they are good at using language to evoke certain emotions from you and me, and we saw Obama employ his talent more last Monday than perhaps ever before. It seems that more often than not, such rhetoric is quite different from the practical reality. Knowing what we know about the legislative process in this country, it is hard to foresee any major departure from the status quo. I hope I’m wrong.

Michael Dean replays old inaugural addresses instead of counting sheep at night. The rhetoric is just so soothing.


REBUTTAL to the RIGHT’s position:

A little perspective: “European and American history since the end of the Middle Ages is the history of the full emergence of the individual. It is a process which started in Italy, in the Renaissance, and which only now seems to have come to a climax. It took over four hundred years to break down the medieval world and to free people from the most apparent restraints. But while in many respects the individual has grown, has developed mentally and emotionally, and participates in cultural achievements in a degree unheard-of before, the lag between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ has grown too. The result of this disproportion between freedom from any tie and the lack of possibilities for the positive realization of freedom and individuality has led, in Europe, to a panicky flight from freedom into new ties or at least into complete indifference.” — Erich Fromm, Fear of Freedom, 1941.


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