By Tom Baxter
We, the people have had a grand wallow of binding ourselves together over the past few days, from the tribal frenzy of the NFL playoffs to the lofty visions of togetherness celebrated on the King Holiday, to the second inauguration of Barack H. Obama, president of the United States.
The difficulty some still have in swallowing the last clause of the preceding sentence gave U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, by now the South’s longest-serving and most seasoned political leader, a tricky assignment Monday. As co-chair of the inauguration committee, he was the only Republican to speak at the swearing-in ceremony.
Alexander seemed to be speaking directly to his party’s most disaffected when he recalled the words of his fellow Tennessean Alex Haley: “Find the good, and praise it,” repeating the admonishment twice more for emphasis in a two-minute speech.
Alexander recalled George Washington’s words that the greatness of the country would be shown not in its first inauguration, but its second, with the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another.
“There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection,” to mar another peaceful transfer of presidential power, Alexander said.
Those brief remarks before a significant inaugural speech are worth noting, because while no coup has actually materialized, there’s been plenty of loose talk about taking up arms and petitions to secede from those disgruntled by the election. There’s no mob, but the outcome of this election finds many in Alexander’s party angry and directionless. He did well to remind them to make the best of the situation, and look to common American ideals.
There’s no insurrection, but half the states have so far not agreed to set up their own health care exchanges as set out in the Affordable Care Act, and Gov. Nathan Deal reiterated in his State of the State address last week that he is also among those Republican governors who say they will refuse the ObamaCare Medicaid expansion.
There’s no mob, no coup, no insurrection, but the rhetoric of rebellion has crept into our politics, especially in opposition to Obama over the past four years. And that, it would seem from the tenor of his second inaugural speech, was just when Barack Obama was getting warmed up.
Obama made a bold and unabashedly political speech. Its frequent references to “we, the people,” was the pretext for a concerted effort to build campaign-style public support for his second-term agenda, one which includes climate change, guns, ballot access and immigration, and for the first time openly embraces gays as part of the progressive tradition.
He made no reference to his standoff with the governors over ObamaCare, but there is much on his to-do list that could cause some big decisions for Deal and other Republican governors. Do they take a Rand Paul-like position on gun control and challenge the president’s authority to issue executive orders? Will they let the state immigration laws they supported be replaced by the administration’s federal immigration reform bill, whenever that materializes? What’s down the road on gay marriage?
With Congressional Republicans exhausted and in retreat over the debt ceiling, it would be natural for the Republican governors to become more the voice of opposition to the Obama administration. It could help spark a presidential campaign. But how much of that will play back home?
“I will not lead our state with a Doomsday mindset, reacting erratically and hastily based on fear or ignorance,” Deal said in his speech last week, promising to keep a steady aim on public safety, education, healthcare and economic development. Deal wasn’t referring specifically to his relations with Washington, but that’s a big part of the job, especially in the next four years.
We, the people, know that all these rituals of national unity won’t soften the debate in Washington. And the way things are shaping up, with a greater effort by both sides to enlist public support and a bevy of issues involving state-federal relations, the debate is headed our way.