Unlike our sitting President, who is most comfortable with a raucous crowd of supporters at his feet and perfectly manicured remarks in his hand, our nation’s 43rd President was at his best when the thin veneer of executive privilege and decorum was allowed to slip away. None of my memories of who George W. Bush was as a President stem from grand oratory or impassioned debate, but rather come from those rare instances when he forgot, however temporarily, that he was the President of the United States of America, and acted accordingly. One such instance took place across the span of seven minutes in a Florida classroom when President Bush responded to the news that terrorists had flown two planes into the Twin Towers by obediently sitting in his chair with the rest of the children in the classroom while the teacher finished reading My Pet Goat. Another occurred when President Bush held a brief press conference on a golf course and capped off his exhortation to the world’s leaders to fight terrorism by choking up on a 3 wood and instructing the press corps to, “watch this drive.” However, on occasion, these lapses in form led not to national catastrophe or embarrassment, but to accidental brilliance. The incident I remember most fondly comes from an appearance the President made at a Pledge Across America event for schoolteachers in Nashville back in 2002, when he gave us this gem:
“There’s a saying in Tennessee…I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says, ‘Fool me once, shame on…shame on you. Fool me…You can’t get fooled again!’”
While it’s hardly Shakespeare, what this botched folksy aphorism lacks in style it makes up for in bluntness. We as a nation could point the finger at the Bush Administration for the first 4 years and claim we had been duped by a duplicitous little troll of a man who won The White House by a vote of 5-to-4, but we had no such excuse for 2004. After a full term of executive malpractice and a blatant defiling of our constitutional rights, even more of us voted for the son of a bitch the second time around. We couldn’t get fooled again and we did. The result was 4 more years of unchecked foreign aggression, tax cuts for the uber-rich and the biggest financial depression of the past 75 years.
Four years ago, Barack Obama was given by the American people the unenviable task of cleaning up the wreckage of two terms of a Bush White House. His inaugural address acknowledged as much, striking a somber and muted tone as a means of checking the mass of unbridled hope that he had cultivated over his campaign. This Monday, as President Obama was sworn in for his second term, the core of his address to the nation was more aspirational and more pointed. He spoke of a need for government to honor its obligations to Social Security, Medicaid & Medicare, while rebuking the falsehood of the welfare moocher in favor of a picture of working class and impoverished Americans in need of these entitlement programs to survive. On this day honoring the memory of the great Dr. King, the President honored the historic contributions of the civil rights pioneers at Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, taking care to explicitly mention the need for truly equal rights for “our gay brothers and sisters,” for the first time during an inaugural address. It was a stirring call to arms and reassurance for progressives in America that echoed the imagery of King’s I Had A Dream Speech, proclaiming that our work is not done, “until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for.” And yet, despite the eloquence and appeal of President Obama’s words today, the ones I kept hearing in my head were George W. Bush’s: Fool me…You can’t get fooled again.
In it’s heart, an inaugural address is essentially a pomp-and-circumstance-heavy State of the Union address that happens on the steps of the Capitol building instead of inside it. To take the President’s inaugural remarks as a substantive blueprint for his 2nd term agenda is to delude yourself into thinking that the image the White House wishes to convey and the reality of its day-to-day execution are the same thing. In his 1st inaugural, President Obama promised that America would, “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories”, while “restor[ing] science to its rightful place.” The POTUS also reassured the world, “that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.” He told us that the time for such childish things as partisan bickering were over. And yet, during his first term, the issues surrounding climate change were all but left untouched, America killed thousands of her new friends all over the Middle East through internationally condemned drone strikes and the petty squabbling in Washington has reached even greater heights.
In his 2nd inaugural address, President Obama noted that, “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal.” If that is indeed the case, then our creed has never known anything like truth. She may be free, but that little girl born into bleakest poverty is most certainly not equal and to proclaim that her circumstances are equitable to those of a girl born into wealth and security is to perpetuate the old Horatio Alger myth that holds that America is a land of equal opportunity where anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, even if they don’t own a pair of shoes.
What we bore witness to today was a series of very well articulated and uplifting platitudes that may or may not become enacted policy. I am not here to cast aspersions against President Obama’s character or intentions, but rather to point out that all of the progressive swooning over speeches such as this is self-congratulatory hokum. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels as progressivism gets steadily compromised into the dustbin of history through a series of pyrrhic victories that shift our society ever rightward. In 2016, after President Obama and the First Family have moved back into some palatial mansion in the suburbs of Chicago, you can begin to laud him for his integrity and sweeping vision of a better tomorrow, but only because by then it will have happened. Until then, you must never stop pushing back.