Republicans call Obama inaugural speech too partisan. Right or wrong?

President Obama's speech defended liberal touchstones, such as a strong role for government, but it raised issues that could divide GOP ranks, such as gay marriage, equal-pay legislation, and even amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio listens as President Obama delivers his inaugural address at the ceremonial swearing-in during the 57th presidential inauguration at the Capitol on Monday.

On the first working day of President Obama’s second term, many conservatives are complaining that Mr. Obama’s inaugural address was a paean to liberalism and big government that presages four more years of Washington partisan warfare.

The right charges that Obama’s speech was all about the limits of individual action and the virtue of “collectivism" and that it ignored the biggest problem in US public life: the growing national debt.

“[Obama] hopes to reorient the American mainstream and locate conservatives outside it,” writes Rich Lowry at National Review Online. “He wants to take the Founders from the Right and baptize the unreconstructed entitlement state and the progressive agenda in the American creed.”

Republican lawmakers were generally more circumspect but expressed disappointment that Obama’s speech didn’t contain more talk about reaching out and working with the other side.

“I was more hopeful that you’d hear more bipartisanship,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) of California, House majority whip, in a Tuesday interview on CBS.

What phrases is the right worried about here? Many Democrats were thrilled by Obama’s second inaugural address. They saw it as an unvarnished defense of liberalism and the role of government in American society.

Well, many conservatives did not like Obama’s direct and positive references to gay marriage, equal-pay legislation, and possible amnesty for illegal immigrants. They see these as liberal touchstones and possible wedge issues that might split the Republican Party.

Climate-change legislation is similarly low on the GOP agenda, yet Obama talked at some length about what he sees as the need to take action on this issue.

Obama defended Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as things that strengthen the nation. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great,” the president said.

Yet he said nothing about how he would fund these costly entitlement programs going forward, conservatives said.

“In celebrating the power of the government to lead the nation forward, Obama breezed past the costs of an ever-growing public sector and made only passing mention of the country’s most urgent problem as he took the oath to lead it: debt,” wrote Stephen F. Hayes at the right-leaning Weekly Standard.

In the short run, this may mean that in the coming months it is unlikely fiscal negotiations will produce any sort of grand bargain in which the White House accepts trims in exchange for GOP concessions.

That’s because he offered up few sweeteners to Republicans, writes Fred Barnes in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

“The highly partisan theme was a departure from recent second inaugural addresses,” according to Mr. Barnes.

In the longer run, Obama’s perceived tilt leftward will endanger red-state or swing-state Democrats, other conservative commentators claim.

There are eight such senators up for reelection in 2014: Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Max Baucus of Montana, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Mark Udall of Colorado.

These incumbents “will have nothing to gain by taking tough votes on Obama’s left-wing ideas,” writes Jennifer Rubin on her Right Turn blog at The Washington Post.

That may be true. But Obama’s pivot to a more partisan stance in his inaugural address is simply recognition of political reality, others say.

Voters like to hear references to the need for Washington to work together, and politicians like to believe they can surmount partisan turmoil to get things done. But voters and the two big US political parties have been gradually becoming more polarized for decades, as former Democrats in the South turn Republican and moderate Republicans disappear or turn to the other side, writes George Washington University associate professor of political science John Sides in The Huffington Post.

“My purpose is not to decide which party deserves more blame. It is to point out that polarization and partisanship have deep roots and cannot easily be changed by a single political leader, even the president. This is why Obama’s promise as a post-partisan would never last long,” writes Mr. Sides.

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