Self-congratulation can be unbecoming, even when it is deserved. It can also be unhelpful and even counterproductive.
The immediate aftermath of the election was a storm of emotions for Democrats. It combined exhilaration at winning with relief from avoiding an unthinkable alternative. The first weeks seemed to be filled with a Republican state of denial, to which “elections have consequences and we won” seemed a pretty succinct response.
Then the ice started to break a bit. A few concessions were made, with Republicans implicitly acknowledging that things were different, if not subject to a sea change. Then President Obama delivered his Inaugural address.
Judging by the reaction, for some liberals/progressives, this was the missing second beat of election night. Obama won, and now he was openly announcing where he stood on the supposed left/right divide. Verbal high-fiving, fist-bumping and chest-thumping could be widely heard. The address was pronounced a liberal/progressive triumph.
And looked at one way, it was. But that is a self-limiting analysis, and actually robs the speech of its power, and robs Obama of his vision and careful eloquence.
The speech had three basic points:
These are our shared American principles.
Government works from the bottom up, not the top down.
We have to live in the present not the past.
Labeling that liberal, progressive or otherwise, no matter who is doing the labeling, short-circuits a potentially valuable conversation and possibilities of common ground. The victory lap, even if it is meant to be dispiriting to the presumed opposition, doesn’t help.
Obama supporters say that he was too conciliatory in his first term, that he unwisely—even naively—believed that compromise was possible. Now they see and hear the less yielding partisan they always believed he was.
They are only partly right. Obama will stand more firmly, but if you listen to the speech beyond the specifics you may be happy to have heard, it was all about those three simple points. Set aside the labels and even the initiatives, and just talk about the basics. The challenge Obama set is for those who claim true Americanism to disagree.