Globe editorial

Obama the pragmatist, meet Obama the liberal

The Globe and Mail

President Barack Obama, the first family, and other government officials listen as Beyoncé sings the national anthem for the presidential public swearing-in during the 57th inauguration at the Capitol Building in Washington. From left: House Speak John Boehner (R-Ohio), Beyoncé, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Obama, Sasha and Malia Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. (DOUG MILLS/NYT)

This was the most liberal President Barack Obama seen in some time. The United States is on the comeback trail, he said in his second inaugural address, and now it needs to share the wealth and truly provide equal rights for all – women, black people, the poor, gays.

But after an election largely about the economy’s slow recovery, Mr. Obama had disappointingly little to say about how he would speed it up. “An economic recovery has begun,” he said, which set up his key message: “Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” Perhaps, but a growing many have not been making it at all, and it would nice to know, broadly, when and how that will change.

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At the heart of his speech was a paragraph that started with a nod to Republicans – he said he accepts the need to reduce health-care costs and the deficit – and ended by bashing, implicitly, the harshness of Republican hardliners, as exemplified by Mitt Romney’s “47 per cent” comment during the election. “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” There was more of Mr. Obama in that one line than in most of his cautious, barely partisan first inaugural speech in 2009.

For Canadians, Mr. Obama’s reference to climate change – that the U.S. will lead a transition to sustainable energy – may prove important; Canada has been justifiably concerned about being out of step with the U.S. in fighting carbon emissions, not wanting to put Canadian businesses at a disadvantage.

On the weekend, Republicans gathered at Williamsburg, Va., adopted a less confrontational stance than in the recent past, suggesting they are prepared to work with Mr. Obama to raise the country’s fiscal ceiling. Although Mr. Obama repeated the word “together” several times, he made his activist liberal agenda clear to Republicans. To his credit, he also hinted to Democrats that they should be pragmatic, and not expect the moon.

“For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay,” he said. “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”

Mr. Obama has a full plate – immigration reform, gun control, the fiscal ceiling (just for a start) – and he has set out his values up front. But it will take negotiations, compromise on both sides and exceptional political skill to achieve his goals.