In an inaugural speech stringing together the most tried, true and poll-tested applause lines, none was as appropriate yet also dissonant as President Obama’s assertion that America should not “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
On the appropriate side of the ledger, that line could be seen as a justifiable riposte to an Angry Right-Wing Hate Machine that relies on – and makes its money from – the business of slur. Indeed, epithets like “socialist,” “fascist,” “Hitler,” “Magical Negro,” and “monkey” (among others) are now part of the conservative movement’s day-to-day vernacular in making its case against the current White House occupant, ginning up popular anger and raising money for the conservative media machine.
However, after a speech that resurrected the themes he ran on in 2008 by rhetorically celebrating a progressive agenda, the president’s rejoinder against “name calling” seems to contradict his own deportment, considering how often his administration employs such name calling to berate the progressive movement.
It was, for instance, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who berated liberals as “fucking retarded” for daring to try to press congressional Democrats to back the health care promises Obama himself made.
It was Obama who deployed his official spokesman to tell reporters that liberals working to hold the president to his campaign promises “ought to be drug tested” because they are “crazy.”
It was Obama’s reelection campaign that sent out an email slamming Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman as a “political rookie” and hammering liberal health care activists as the “Firebagger Lefty blogosphere.”
It was a “Democrat close to Obama” who used an interview with Politico to castigate LGBT activists as “naive” for daring to push the president to support basic equality under the law.
It was an Obama adviser who denigrated liberals as the “internet left fringe” and who implored progressives “to take off their pajamas” just because they expected the president to actually advocate for the policies he promised to during his election campaign.
It was a “senior Obama adviser” who labeled those supporting a public health-care merely “the left of the left.”
It was an anonymous confidante of Obama’s national security adviser who slammed civil libertarians questioning the president’s extra-judicial drone war as “Cheeto-eating people in the basement working in their underwear.”
The list goes on and on – these are just a representative sample of a White House that often seems as eager to utilize obnoxious fact-free invective against progressives as the Angry Right-Wing Hate Machine. That invective may be a bit less harsh and offensive, but it is still exactly the kind of “name calling” the president deplored in his speech.
But, then, perhaps that is the real meaning of Obama’s applause line about “name calling”. Perhaps it was both a justifiable and easy-to-understand “fuck you” to the right and also a more subtle pledge to the millions of liberals and progressives who put him in the White House. Perhaps, in short, it was a president who has previously asked citizens to “hold me accountable” now pledging to strike a wholly different and more constructive posture toward those progressives who do just that.
That may be wishful thinking. But on an inauguration day that quadrennially begs us to feel some twinge of aspirational optimism, that should be least we can hope for from a man whose original vision was about far bigger hopes and dreams.