Obama Highlights Agenda Items with Inaugural Speech

By Joseph Lawler

President Obama’s second inaugural address represented an attempt to connect the two-term president's agenda to the founding documents, and contained a laundry list of the specific items he hopes to pursue. Although the speech was more aggressively liberal than might have been expected, the president also made an appeal for good-government measures. For instance, his call to “revamp our tax code” wasn’t soaring or strongly partisan rhetoric.

One of the first priorities Obama mentioned was defending the nation’s entitlement programs: “The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative.” That comment was surely a reference to the efforts of some Republicans over the past several years to push changes to those programs, most notably the president's election opponent Paul Ryan. Obama, however, didn’t shy from addressing the role that the debt will play in shaping policy over the next four years, warning that “[w]e must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”

The policy item that received the most extended attention in the speech, though, was climate change:

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

Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.

We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries. We must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

It’s a sign of the limits to Obama's green ambitions that he would couple a stark warning about climate change with a reference to sustainable energy and the somewhat incongruous note about ceding technology to other nations. The implication is that this call to arms on the climate won’t entail sweeping legislation of the kind that Democrats attempted in 2009 with the cap and trade bill, but instead a continued focus on developing alternative energy sources and other kinds of smaller-bore green technology programs.

One other big-ticket item referenced in the speech, although in a less comprehensive fashion, was immigration reform. “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,”Obama said.

Otherwise, the speech included passing references to a number of social issues, such as voting rights, the male-female wage gap, gay issues, and children’s safety, with a mention of Newtown.

Obama didn’t mention the state of the macroeconomy, other than to suggest that the country is in the beginning of an economic recovery. There was no mention of unemployment or economic growth. Obama also didn’t spend time looking back at his first-term achievements: he only spoke of health care in the context of lowering costs, and didn’t reference either the Dodd-Frank Act or the financial system in general.

Joseph Lawler is editor of RealClearPolicy. He can be reached by email or on twitter.

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