Mr. Nocera is off today. In “The Collective Turn” Bobo says that President Obama’s second Inaugural Address makes a compelling case for a pragmatic and patriotic progressivism. Mr. Cohen says “Diplomacy is Dead,” but still there are modest reasons to think the lid on diplomacy’s coffin may open a crack. In “A Map of Human Dignity” Mr. Bruni says in his inaugural remarks, President Obama connected three places to one quest for a better America. Here’s Bobo:
The best Inaugural Addresses make an argument for something. President Obama’s second one, which surely has to rank among the best of the past half-century, makes an argument for a pragmatic and patriotic progressivism.
His critics have sometimes accused him of being an outsider, but Obama wove his vision from deep strands in the nation’s past. He told an American story that began with the Declaration and then touched upon the railroad legislation, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the highway legislation, the Great Society, Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.
Turning to the present, Obama argued that America has to change its approach if it wants to continue its progress. Modern problems like globalization, technological change, widening inequality and wage stagnation compel us to take new collective measures if we’re to pursue the old goals of equality and opportunity.
Obama wasn’t explicit about why we have failed to meet these challenges. But his critique was implicit. There has been too much “me” — too much individualism and narcissism, too much retreating into the private sphere. There hasn’t been enough “us,” not enough communal action for the common good.
The president then described some of the places where collective action is necessary: to address global warming, to fortify the middle class, to defend Medicare and Social Security, to guarantee equal pay for women and equal rights for gays and lesbians.
During his first term, Obama was inhibited by his desire to be postpartisan, by the need to not offend the Republicans with whom he was negotiating. Now he is liberated. Now he has picked a team and put his liberalism on full display. He argued for it in a way that was unapologetic. Those who agree, those who disagree and those of us who partly agree now have to raise our game. We have to engage his core narrative and his core arguments for a collective turn.
I am not a liberal like Obama, so I was struck by what he left out in his tour through American history. I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, but I’d also mention Wall Street, State Street, Menlo Park and Silicon Valley. I’d emphasize that America has prospered because we have a decentralizing genius.
When Europeans nationalized their religions, we decentralized and produced a great flowering of entrepreneurial denominations. When Europe organized state universities, our diverse communities organized private universities. When Europeans invested in national welfare states, American localities invested in human capital.
America’s greatest innovations and commercial blessings were unforeseen by those at the national headquarters. They emerged, bottom up, from tinkerers and business outsiders who could never have attracted the attention of a president or some public-private investment commission.
I would have been more respectful of this decentralizing genius than Obama was, more nervous about dismissing it for the sake of collective action, more concerned that centralization will lead to stultification, as it has in every other historic instance.
I also think Obama misunderstands this moment. The Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society laws were enacted when America was still a young and growing nation. They were enacted in a nation that was vibrant, raw, underinstitutionalized and needed taming.
We are no longer that nation. We are now a mature nation with an aging population. Far from being underinstitutionalized, we are bogged down with a bloated political system, a tangled tax code, a byzantine legal code and a crushing debt.
The task of reinvigorating a mature nation is fundamentally different than the task of civilizing a young and boisterous one. It does require some collective action: investing in human capital. But, in other areas, it also involves stripping away — streamlining the special interest sinecures that have built up over the years and liberating private daring.
Reinvigorating a mature nation means using government to give people the tools to compete, but then opening up a wide field so they do so raucously and creatively. It means spending more here but deregulating more there. It means facing the fact that we do have to choose between the current benefits to seniors and investments in our future, and that to pretend we don’t face that choice, as Obama did, is effectively to sacrifice the future to the past.
Obama made his case beautifully. He came across as a prudent, nonpopulist progressive. But I’m not sure he rescrambled the debate. We still have one party that talks the language of government and one that talks the language of the market. We have no party that is comfortable with civil society, no party that understands the ways government and the market can both crush and nurture community, no party with new ideas about how these things might blend together.
But at least the debate is started. Maybe that new wind will come.
Bobo still wants me dining on Friskies… Here’s Mr. Cohen:
Diplomacy is dead.
Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end to the Cold War on American terms, or the Dayton peace accord in Bosnia — requires patience, persistence, empathy, discretion, boldness and a willingness to talk to the enemy.
This is an age of impatience, changeableness, palaver, small-mindedness and an unwillingness to talk to bad guys. Human rights are in fashion, a good thing of course, but the space for realist statesmanship of the kind that produced the Bosnian peace in 1995 has diminished. The late Richard Holbrooke’s realpolitik was not for the squeamish.
There are other reasons for diplomacy’s demise. The United States has lost its dominant position without any other nation rising to take its place. The result is nobody’s world. It is a place where America acts as a cautious boss, alternately encouraging others to take the lead and worrying about loss of authority. Syria has been an unedifying lesson in the course of crisis when diplomacy is dead. Algeria shows how the dead pile up when talking is dismissed as a waste of time.
Violence, of the kind diplomacy once resolved, has shifted. As William Luers, a former ambassador to Venezuela and the director of The Iran Project, said in an e-mail, it occurs “less between states and more dealing with terrorists.” One result is that “the military and the C.I.A. have been in the driver’s seat in dealing with governments throughout the Middle East and in state to state (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq) relations.” The role of professional diplomats is squeezed.
Indeed the very word “diplomacy” has become unfashionable on Capitol Hill, where its wimpy associations — trade-offs, compromise, pliancy, concessions and the like — are shunned by representatives who these days prefer beating the post-9/11 drums of confrontation, toughness and inflexibility: All of which may sound good but often get you nowhere (or into long, intractable wars) at great cost.
Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, wrote in an e-mail that, “When domestic politics devolve into polarization and paralysis the impact on diplomatic possibility becomes inordinately constraining.” He cited Cuba and Iran as examples of this; I would add Israel-Palestine. These critical foreign policy issues are viewed less as diplomatic challenges than potential sources of domestic political capital.
So when I asked myself what I hoped Barack Obama’s second term would inaugurate, my answer was a new era of diplomacy. It is not too late for the president to earn that Nobel Peace Prize.
Of course diplomats do many worthy things around the world, and even in the first term there were a couple of significant shifts — in Burma where patient U.S. diplomacy has produced an opening, and in the yo-yoing new Egypt where U.S. engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood was important and long overdue (and raised the question of when America would do the same with the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas.)
But Obama has not had a big breakthrough. America’s diplomatic doldrums are approaching their 20th year.
There are some modest reasons to think the lid on diplomacy’s coffin may open a crack. This is a second term; Obama is less beholden to the strident whims of Congress. The Republican never-give-an-inch right is weaker. In John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, his nominees for secretary of state and secretary of defense, Obama has chosen two knowledgeable professionals who have seen enough war to loathe it and have deep experience of the world. They know peace involves risk. They know it may not be pretty. The big wars are winding down. Military commanders may cede some space to diplomats.
Breakthrough diplomacy is not conducted with friends. It is conducted with the likes of the Taliban, the ayatollahs and Hamas. It involves accepting that in order to get what you want you have to give something. The central question is: What do I want to get out of my rival and what do I have to give to get it? Or, put the way Nixon put it in seeking common ground with Communist China: What do we want, what do they want, and what do we both want?
Obama tried a bunch of special envoys in the first term. It did not work. He needs to empower his secretary of state to do the necessary heavy lifting on Iran and Israel-Palestine. Luers suggested that one “idea for a New Diplomacy would be for Hagel and Kerry to take along senators from both parties on trips abroad and to trouble spots. This used to be standard practice. Be bold with the Senate and try to bring them along.”
For diplomacy to succeed noise has to be shut out. There are a lot of pie-in-the-sky citizen-diplomats out there these days blathering on about dreamy one-state solutions for Israel-Palestine and the like. Social media and hyper-connectivity bring huge benefits. They helped ignite the wave of liberation known as the Arab Spring. They are force-multipliers for openness and citizenship. But they may distract from the focused, realpolitik diplomacy that brought the major breakthroughs of 1972, 1989 and 1995. It’s time for another.
Last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni:
Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall. The alliteration of that litany made it seem obvious and inevitable, a bit of poetry just there for the taking. Just waiting to happen.
But it has waited a long time. And President Obama’s use of it in his speech on Monday — his grouping of those three places and moments in one grand and musical sentence — was bold and beautiful and something to hear. It spoke volumes about the progress that gay Americans have made over the four years between his first inauguration and this one, his second. It also spoke volumes about the progress that continues to elude us.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall,” the president said, taking a rapt country on a riveting trip to key theaters in the struggle for liberty and justice for all.
Seneca Falls is a New York town where, in 1848, the women’s suffrage movement gathered momentum. Selma is an Alabama city where, in 1965, marchers amassed, blood was shed and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood his ground against the unconscionable oppression of black Americans.
And Stonewall? This was the surprise inclusion, separating Obama’s oratory and presidency from his predecessors’ diction and deeds. It alludes to a gay bar in Manhattan that, in 1969, was raided by police, who subjected patrons to a bullying they knew too well. After the raid came riots, and after the riots came a more determined quest by L.G.B.T. Americans for the dignity they had long been denied.
The causes of gay Americans and black Americans haven’t always existed in perfect harmony, and that context is critical for appreciating Obama’s reference to Stonewall alongside Selma. Blacks have sometimes questioned gays’ use of “civil rights” to describe their own movement, and have noted that the historical experiences of the two groups aren’t at all identical. Obama moved beyond that, focusing on the shared aspirations of all minorities. It was a big-hearted, deliberate, compelling decision.
He went on, seconds later, to explicitly mention “gay” Americans, saying a word never before uttered in inaugural remarks. What shocked me most about that was how un-shocking it was.
Four years ago we lived in a country in which citizens of various states had consistently voted against the legalization of same-sex marriage.
But on Nov. 6, the citizens of all three states that had the opportunity to legalize gay marriage at the ballot box did so, with clear majorities in Maryland, Maine and Washington endorsing it.
Four years ago the inaugural invocation was given by a pastor with a record of antigay positions and remarks. This year, a similar assignment was withdrawn from a pastor with a comparable record, once it came to light. What’s more, an openly gay man was chosen to be the inaugural poet, and in news coverage of his biography, his parents’ exile from Cuba drew more attention than his sexual orientation. That’s how far we’ve come.
And the distance traveled impresses me more than the distance left. I want to be clear on that. I’m proud of our country and president, despite their shortcomings on this front and others. It takes time for minds to open fully and laws to follow suit, and the making of change, in contrast to the making of statements, depends on patience as well as passion.
But the “gay” passage of Obama’s speech underscored the lingering gap between the American ideal and the American reality. “Our journey is not complete,” he said, “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.”
He means the right to marry. As long as we gay and lesbian Americans don’t have that, we’re being told that our relationships aren’t as honorable as those of straight couples. And if that’s the case, then we’re not as honorable, either. Is there really any other reading of the situation?
Despite our strides, gay and lesbian couples even now can marry only in nine states and the District of Columbia. The federal government doesn’t recognize those weddings, meaning that in terms of taxes, military benefits and matters of immigration, it treats gays and lesbians differently than it treats other Americans. It relegates us to an inferior class.
The Supreme Court could soon change, or validate, that. There are relevant cases before it. For his part Obama could show less deference to states’ rights, be more insistent about what’s just and necessary coast-to-coast, and push for federal protections against employment discrimination when it comes to L.G.B.T. Americans. His actions over the next four years could fall wholly in line with Monday’s trailblazing words. My hope is real, and grateful, and patient.