Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Obama Lays Down Markers on Hot-Button Legal Issues

      The weather was warmer, and the oath-taking smoother: Chief Justice Roberts used a cheat sheet both times to avoid any flubs. But the crowd was much smaller, and the drama lower-key. Still, Barack Obama provided a healthy dose of excitement on Monday [Jan. 21] with an agenda-laden inaugural address that cheered his liberal and progressive base while disconcerting the conservative opposition.
      Without providing specifics, Obama began his second term by taking on three of the hottest-button of legal issues: gun control, immigration and gay rights. LGBT groups quickly noted it was the first time the word “gay” had been used in a presidential inaugural — and the closing benediction too.
      At the same time, Obama voiced not a defense but full-throated praise for the social safety net enacted under Democratic presidents: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Obama rejected the Romney-Ryan meme that those programs have turned America into a nation of unproductive “takers.” Instead, Obama said, they actually free Americans to take risks for themselves and provide for future generations without fearing lives of desperation if adversity strikes or old age takes its toll.
      Admirers and critics alike recognized the address for what it was: a bold statement by only the 16th of the 43 men to serve as president to have been elected to consecutive four-year terms. James Fallows, the liberal national correspondent for the Atlantic and former Carter speechwriter, called the speech “the most sustainedly ‘progressive’ statement Barack Obama has made in his decade on the national stage.” Less admiringly, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace sized it up as “a real call to arms for a liberal agenda.”
      The address could be seen as Obama’s answer to begrudging assessments of his administration from the political left, exemplified in opinion pieces published in the Washington Post’s Sunday edition on the official inauguration date: Jan. 20. Frederick Harris, a political scientist and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, complained that Obama had spoken less about poverty and race than any Democratic president in a generation. On foreign affairs, Anne Marie Slaughter, an internationalist-minded professor at Princeton who served as the State Department’s director of policy planning in Obama’s first two years in office, appeared to fault him for lacking consistency or resolution in supporting democracy and human rights abroad.
      Indeed, Obama had much to apologize for in his first-term record on the three legal issues highlighted in the inaugural. Obama was all but silent on gun control and mostly dormant on immigration. True, he took on gay rights issues, winning repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But he did not put the White House behind the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and took three years plus some to “evolve” into supporting marriage equality for gays and lesbians.
      For the LGBT community and straight alllies, Obama went as far as one could in a speech to make up for the first term’s shortcomings. He gave gays equal billing in the advance toward equal rights by listing Stonewall, the 1969 riot used to mark the birth of the gay rights movement, along with other historic milestones: Seneca Falls (women’s suffrage) and Selma (racial justice).
      The nation’s journey to equality, Obama continued, “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.” Obama could not have been unaware that the nine Supreme Court justices seated on the platform to his left will take up the issue in March.
      Immigration reform advocates, who fault the administration for putting more energy into deportations than into reform, could also take encouragement from Obama’s listing of their cause as part of the progression toward equality. “Our journey is not complete,” he continued, “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.”
      Dealing with gun violence came next in the president’s litany. Obama called for “all our children,” including those in “the quiet lanes of Newtown,” to be kept “always safe from harm.” In contrast to the other issues, Obama had already laid out his agenda on that subject five days earlier, with a batch of executive orders to improve enforcement of existing laws and a call for Congress to revive the ban on assault weapons and to prohibit large-capacity magazines.
      Foreign policy took a back seat in Obama’s address. He declared an end to “a decade of war” and outlined second-term goals only vaguely if at all. Obama promised to “support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East.” But democratization advocates surely noted the absence of any specifics. And human rights advocates must have noted that the first-term pledge to close Guantanamo, thwarted by Congress, went unrenewed.
      Visibly older, Obama appeared also wizened by experience. He did not talk of changing Washington’s dysfunctional ways, only of setting aside “absolutism” and stressing allegiance to “God and country” instead of “party or faction.” No speech can change how Washington works, but in his second inaugural Obama signaled a change in leadership style. The impact remains to be seen.

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