Obama’s Inaugural Address Must Offer a Hand to Republicans

Most people think the president isn't interested in civility because his actions over the last four years have shown him to be deeply polarizing.

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President Barack Obama gestures as he talks about the fiscal cliff negotiations during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, in Washington.
President Barack Obama gestures as he talks about the fiscal cliff negotiations at the White House in December.

I asked my teenage daughters what they thought the president should talk about in his upcoming inaugural address, and both immediately answered: "the school shootings." They may be right. Not for the predictable political reason of trying to build support for gun control, but because there was a great story buried in the coverage of the latest shooting at Taft Union High School in California. An unarmed teacher and a school counselor confronted the shooter and persuaded him to hand over his gun. So many of these stories end with the death of the shooter; in this case, many lives were saved because two adults were able to listen to the boy and reason with him. The violence we're seeing lately is a symptom of a bigger problem in our society: We're losing our ability to reason with each other. It's shoot first, ask questions later. 

In politics, we can learn from this. 

My advice to President Obama's speechwriters is to follow the words of a president who gave his inaugural address during a time of badly divided government and political extremism. They should take a page from President George H.W. Bush when he said that a "new breeze was blowing" in Washington:

To my friends—and yes, I do mean friends—in the loyal opposition—and yes, I mean loyal—I put out my hand. I'm putting out my hand to you, Mr. Speaker. I'm putting out my hand to you, Mr. Majority Leader. For this is the thing: This is the age of the offered hand ... The American people await action. They didn't send us here to bicker. They asked us to rise above the merely partisan. In crucial things, unity—and this, my friends, is crucial.

[ Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

That last sentence is an allusion to an earlier line in Bush's inaugural referencing St. Augustine: "I take as my guide the hope of a saint: In crucial things, unity—in important things, diversity—in all things, generosity."

It's hard to imagine Barack Obama saying things like that, but read what Fr. John Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame, wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week:

What if, instead of dealing with opponents by demonizing them and distorting their views, we were to take some steps to persuade them? I don't mean to suggest that one could persuade a stalwart partisan to switch parties, but perhaps one could persuade another that a particular policy or a position is "not as bad as you think."

If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them. I have to appeal to their values, which means I have to show them respect. I have to find the best arguments for my position, which means I have to think about my values in the context of their concerns. I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas. I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can't insult them. 

If we earnestly try to persuade, civility takes care of itself.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The problem is that most people think that Obama isn't interested in civility because his actions over the last four years have shown him to be a deeply polarizing. In order for anyone to take him at his word, he needs to be specific about how when it comes to crucial things, he'll work for unity—crucial things such as the debt crisis, the gun debate, the implementation of Obamacare, and immigration reform. The inaugural address is a great opportunity for the president to persuade without insulting, to make his best case, and most of all, to understand and appeal to the values of those on the other side —something he's really never done. 

Here's how he can be specific: Invite Republicans to join him in bipartisan votes on the big challenges facing our country—which means he'll have to actually propose legislation on immigration and the fiscal crisis, for example, which he'll then have to convince Republicans to support. That means he'll have to take their views into account and meet them halfway. No more unilaterally signing executive orders on controversial issues, such as the deportation of illegal immigrants and changes to welfare policy. No more "you have to vote for the bill in order to find out what's in the bill," as we saw with the party-line vote on Obamacare. 

[ See 2012: The Year in Cartoons.]

President Obama should agree with Speaker Boehner: no more one-on-one negotiations. In fact, he should back only bipartisan-sponsored legislation available for public review. Now that earmarks are gone, he'll have to persuade others on the merits of his case, and they must persuade him on theirs as well. No more moving the goalposts in private negotiations, no more mocking those who disagree. If he honestly believes that politics is a contest of ideas—and if he honestly believes in the power of his ideas—the president should be able to persuade the other side that his policies "aren't as bad as you think." And just as importantly, a respectful dialogue with the right should help him realize the wisdom and compassion of conservative policies. 

Doing so will make the president look big. The inaugural address is where he should start offering a hand. He'll "rise above the merely partisan," in Bush 41's words, and cement a legacy for himself that is very different than the one he is facing right now. Time for a new breeze to start blowing.