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Obama agenda squares with views of most Americans

Commentary: His bold speech shows he has learned the lessons of the first term.
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US President Barack Obama, surrounded by members of his family, listens to the National Anthem during the 57th Presidential Inauguration ceremonial swearing-in at the US Capitol on Jan. 21, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — A new and decidedly partisan President Obama introduced himself to the nation in his inaugural speech Monday. Considering the myriad of problems facing the country — an eroding middle class, a deteriorating education system, the eventual soaring costs of our entitlement programs — it is encouraging to see a more aggressive Obama emerge. Tough problems demand a tough president.

Conservatives were for the most part outraged. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank said Obama had delivered a "left-over campaign speech," terming it "unusually political for an inaugural."

The Post's radical conservative, Jessica Rubin, was even more offended: his "overtly leftist and partisan campaign" speech showed not only "the absence of a desire for political unity or cooperation," but as well "little appreciation of the dangers we face in the world."

Even the middle-of-the-road David Ignatius denounced Obama for being "flat, partisan, and surprisingly pedantic."

One can only wonder, if after four years of having the door shut in his face as he tried to bring bipartisanship to Washington, his critics were really expecting a solidly victorious Obama to seek more rejection and humiliation from his Republican opponents.

Obama's proposed course of action in his inaugural was well thought out; it was clear he was not shooting from his hip. He basically had two choices: he could continue talking in the flat, pedantic voice of someone who hadn't learned the lessons of the past four years — that the highest priority of the Republican Party's leadership is to assure the Obama presidency fails — or he could go on the offensive.

The agenda Obama outlined, which The New York Times' non-ideological conservative David Brooks called "pragmatic and patriotic progressivism," is hardly outside the mainstream views of the vast majority of Americans under 40, nor of most of their elders, Tea Party males and their aging white same-sex mates aside:

— "We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class."

— "We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher."

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

— "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

— "Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts…until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law … until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote … until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country."

The Democrats, and Obama, won the November election convincingly, drawing votes from broad segments of the population in a way that implies disaster for the future of an unchanging Republican Party.

In fact, as Michael Tomasky points out in the current New York Review of Books, the election was far more lop-sided than it appeared. Because of Republican gerrymandering, although Democratic candidates for the House actually received about 500,000 more votes nationally than their Republican opponents, Republicans won 54 percent of the seats.

But the problem is not just the way such rigged districts distort the popular will, it's that they create safe Republican districts in which the only serious concern of the winner is a challenge from the Republican right.

Tomasky underlines the result: "a political structure within the GOP that rewards obstruction and regards compromise with Obama not as reasonable bargaining with the duly elected president of the United States, but as treachery."

Under the circumstances, while Obama's new agenda is simultaneously aggressive and progressive, it is also, politically, quite pragmatic. Every single item he highlighted in his inaugural appeals to important elements of the country as a whole, further isolating Republicans over the longterm from mainstream American voters.

Immigration reform? Obama has nearly 80 percent support among Hispanics and Asians. If he gets his immigration bill passed, it will consolidate his support among these key constituencies; if the Republican Neanderthals are able to defeat it, the Republicans will lose even more support from this ever-growing segment of the population. Heads, Obama wins; tails, the Republicans lose.

Equal pay for women? Already the majority of American women support Obama. This will ensure their continued support and that of their daughters.

Gay rights? As the recent referendum on same-sex marriage in Maine and several other states showed, gay rights is a no-brainer for those born in the last quarter of the 20th century, and their numbers as a percentage of our population can only grow as their gay-averse parents inevitably die off.

Climate change? Republicans can still trot out a few discredited scientists to, as Obama put it, "deny the overwhelming judgment of science," but with global warming a reality, not just a prediction, and new Katrinas and Sandys and droughts plaguing us yearly, the demand for solutions will become overwhelming.

The Republican majority in the House has already signaled its awareness not only of Obama's strength but of their own vulnerability by suggesting a reprise till late spring on that manufactured crisis, the debt ceiling.

Having described accurately not just what 21st century American society will look like, but what its citizens want, Obama must still come to terms with the very real economic problems the country will face in the long term if changes aren't initiated in the short-term. If it's important, and fair, to deal with climate change now so that our children and grandchildren won't suffer from our inaction, it's equally important, and fair, to avoid making future generations suffer from current economic inaction.

First time around, Obama punted on the reforms that his own Simpson-Bowles commission recommended, worried apparently about offending his base. But with his second term a done deal, liberal Democrats are the least of Obama's worries: are they going to defect to the Republican camp?

Now is the time to balance the social programs he outlined at his inauguration with a serious re-working of our tax code as part of an overall deal on spending cuts and revenue increases. This of course is something the Republican leadership wants and has said it is willing to compromise on — though there is no denying the devil will certainly be in the details.

The irony is that simplification of the tax code will inevitably favor the middle class more than the rich, aging white males that make up the base of Republican support. Even here, where Obama will have to meet the Republicans more than half way, it's hard to see how a grand bargain would not benefit the Democrats at the expense of a Republican Party slated for extinction.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine, and still travels frequently to the Middle East.

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