On The Side of Angels symposium: prologue
In Barack Obama’s inaugural address last week,Americans encountered their quadrennial moment of post-partisanship. Since Thomas Jefferson’s “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” almost nothing has been so common in an inaugural address as a call to move past old partisan divides. (See recent examples below.) In many respects this is politeness and graciousness in victory: no one thought that Jefferson really was a capital-F Federalist, and no one is at risk of forgetting that Obama is a Democrat. An inauguration marks the transition from candidate to president, from campaign to governing, and from voice of a party to head of a government. There’s something appropriate in the new president’s acknowledgement that, while remaining a partisan, he is now responsible to and for an entire citizenry.
But there is still something odd about the trope. There is always a hint that, prior to the great man’s arrival, the parties disputed over petty and silly things, whereas now they shall unify behind his vision of greatness. It’s partly a result of presidentialism; where the head of state is separate from the head of government, the head of government doesn’t feel the same need to pretend to be above party, and doesn’t have the same presumptuousness that his or her program is now the whole nation’s program. But it’s also partly a legacy of a reflexive distrust of parties and partisanship—a disposition we’ll be considering here next week.
Our two-party system has served us well over the years, but never better than in those times of great challenge when we came together not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans united in a common cause.
For Congress, too, has changed in our time. There has grown a certain divisiveness. We have seen the hard looks and heard the statements in which not each other's ideas are challenged, but each other's motives. And our great parties have too often been far apart and untrusting of each other. It has been this way since Vietnam. That war cleaves us still. But, friends, that war began in earnest a quarter of a century ago; and surely the statute of limitations has been reached. This is a fact: The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory. A new breeze is blowing, and the old bipartisanship must be made new again. To my friends—and yes, I do mean friends—in the loyal opposition—and yes, I mean loyal: I put out my hand. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Speaker. I am putting out my hand to you, Mr. Majority Leader. For this is the thing: This is the age of the offered hand. We can't turn back clocks, and I don't want to. But when our fathers were young, Mr. Speaker, our differences ended at the water's edge. And we don't wish to turn back time, but when our mothers were young, Mr. Majority Leader, the Congress and the Executive were capable of working together to produce a budget on which this nation could live. Let us negotiate soon and hard. But in the end, let us produce. The American people await action. They didn't send us here to bicker. They ask us to rise above the merely partisan. "In crucial things, unity"—and this, my friends, is crucial.
To that effort I pledge all my strength and every power of my office. I ask the members of Congress here to join in that pledge. The American people returned to office a President of one party and a Congress of another. Surely, they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore. No, they call on us instead to be repairers of the breach, and to move on with America’s mission.
These questions that judge us also unite us, because Americans of every party and background, Americans by choice and by birth, are bound to one another in the cause of freedom. We have known divisions, which must be healed to move forward in great purposes—and I will strive in good faith to heal them. Yet those divisions do not define America. We felt the unity and fellowship of our nation when freedom came under attack, and our response came like a single hand over a single heart. And we can feel that same unity and pride whenever America acts for good, and the victims of disaster are given hope, and the unjust encounter justice, and the captives are set free.