PBS Panelists Call Obama’s Inaugural Address ‘Communitarian’ Rather Than Liberal

During PBS’ coverage of the 2013 Inauguration, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Gwen Ifill, and Yale University’s Beverly Gage seemed to have forgotten what the definition of liberal is within the context of Obama’s second inaugural address.  In fact, Gage said that this wasn’t an “endorsement of collective liberalism,” and Shields called it more “humanitarian.” 

The non-taxpayer subsidized liberal media has been more honest. Today’s New York Times said Obama offered a “liberal vision.”  Slate’s John Dickerson, who infamously called for Obama to destroy the GOP, called the 44th president’s address “a liberal love letter.”  ABC finally figured out that Obama is a progressive liberal.

The whole PBS exchange was odd. Gage thought that the 2013 inaugural reminded her of Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 ceremony. Wilson, of course, was the Progressive populist who gave America the Federal Reserve, reenacted the dormant income tax, and pursued an aggressively liberal agenda.

Historian Richard Norton Smith said that the president's address was “eloquent,” and challenged the Thatcherite notions that there’s an absence of society, which as been a characteristic in how Congress has governed previously.  This point was refuted by quasi-conservative David Brooks who actually made a decent point this time:

BEVERLY GAGE: Yes, he does seem happy and relaxed and open – really this time around. I mean, I would agree I found this enormously moving and a real affirmation of what I think Obama in many people's minds does stand for which is this inclusive idea of what America is. And what it's become. I'm not sure that I agree with David that I found it a ringing endorsement of collective liberalism. I think it was actually a pretty safe speech in ideological terms. You look back at someone like Ronald Reagan or you look at Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural, you know – you have much more kind of explicit ideological statements about government and what it is. Actually the speech that it reminded me the most of was Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration of 1913. We are celebrating that anniversary as well, so we’re at he 100th anniversary.  In part, because the issues are similar, so we have climate change now, we had environmental issues then, taxation, and banking – but the idea that people can’t do certain things on their own and we do need to come together in some way.

DAVID BROOKS:  Let me defend myself. Let me attack Richard [Norton Smith]. Margaret Thatcher gets a bad rap for that. That was – that was

I've always thought she got a bad rap. What she was talking about who’s paying tax bills, and that speech was more about nationalism.  First on liberalism in the speech I do think it was the most unapologetically liberal speech we've heard Barack Obama give. It was really tracing American history, and saying to keep faith to our ideals we have to change and we have to change in a collective direction. We have to guarantee equal incomes for women for the same work, he mentioned gay rights, he mentioned climate change, he mentioned preserving Medicare, Social Security. I thought it was pretty much laying down a quite liberal agenda, there was none of the bipartisan, trans-partisan stuff of the first speech. And there was none of what you would call the conservative themes. There was very little when he talked about story of American history it was the story of Seneca, Selma, Stonewall. It was not the story of inventors, capitalism, and business pioneers. So, that’s a different narrative.

GWEN IFILL: That makes it liberal?

BROOKS:  I think so, yeah. These are two different areas people tend to emphasize. And so, it was less about capitalism, less about hard choices, I don't think there was a mention of terrorism. And so I think it was a pretty forthrightly progressive speech.

JEFFREY BROWN, PBS NEWSHOUR: Mark Shields, bring you into this?

MARK SHIELDS:  I'd like to come down squarely on the side of my colleagues in this.

BROWN: ALL? (laughter)

SHIELDS: The president pleaded for unity – cats and dogs and such. I think Beverly is absolutely right. I think if you talk about a liberal speech, FDR’s second inaugural – met the-- the forces of selfishness and greed met their match in the first administration, let it be said in the second administration, they met their master. I mean that was really tough stuff. I mean, this was – I thought, very much a "we" speech as I said earlier. And I think that's important.  He came back to the “we” – that we're in it together. We’re all part of it. We have to measure what we do by the least among us – that we have responsibility to each other – that we had to act together. I mean, that to me is what came through rather than heroic narrative of the single individual standing up. I think it was a different Barack Obama. I don't see it as liberal. I see it as communitarian.


Just come out, and say it was a liberal address.  Everyone else is starting to make you guys look like fools.

*Correction: Previously, I had written that Shields described Obama's speech as "humanitarian," instead of "communitarian."  The change has been made.