President Obama left little doubt about where he stands, but that’s not the last word

President Barack Obama could have used his second inaugural address Monday as an opportunity to offer an olive branch to his political opponents, but he chose what some will see as a more confrontational tone. Others will see it simply as more honest.

Obama’s theme was transparently liberal. He defended Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as programs that “do not make us a nation of takers; they free is to take the risks that made this country great” and talked about helping the poor and shoring up the middle class. His warning about global warming practically fell out of the sky and his call for marriage equality for gay couples went beyond prior declarations on the subject.

But spare us the feigned shock of U.S. Sen John McCain, who told The New York Times, “I would have liked to see a little more on outreach and working together” in the speech.

Republican House leaders have made it clear that they believe they were elected to represent a conservative constituency. It should come as no surprise that President Obama decided to accentuate his liberal side Monday.

The last two years have been dominated by partisan political themes. Republicans made it clear that their priority was to make Obama a one-term president. Obama dug in his heels and waged an ultimately successful battle for re-election.

But while the drama produced political winners and losers, ultimately the big decisions didn’t get made until the nation teetered on the brink of disaster. And in the case of the debt limit stand-off, billions were lost on the stock market in reaction to the mindless intransigence in Congress. The House will vote today on yet another debt bill that does little more than, once again, kick the can down the road.

No cause for confusion

Obama’s inaugural address essentially set the record straight. He has an agenda. The Republicans in Congress have an agenda. Now that there can be no confusion about their philosophies, goals and aspirations, they can begin looking at how they are going to go about working together.

There is no time to be wasted, and the nation’s budget challenges remain a top priority. The blue print for addressing that challenge remains that drawn by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform formed in 2010. It was headed by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Democrat Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff for President Clinton. The administration and Congress have flinched each time they have had the opportunity to take the serious medicine prescribed by Simpson-Bowles. Meanwhile, the fiscal health of the nation only gets worse.

In matters of the budget and other pressing issues, neither side can afford to take anything off the table. Neither can pretend that compromise consists of one side saying “here’s what I need” and the other side giving in.

It is up to House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House to use the three months afforded it by the debt limit extension negotiating the kind of difficult taxing and spending compromises that were part of the Simpson-Bowles plan.

And it is up to them to use the next year — before everyone’s partisan gaze becomes fixed on the 2014 off-year elections — to get some work done on other priorities.

Obama has declared his liberal inclinations. The Republicans in the House and Senate have declared their conservative bent. But here’s the problem. The nation is arguably not as liberal as Blue State Obama or as conservative as Red State Republicans.

The majority of Americans tend toward purple, and it is incumbent on Congress and the president to govern accordingly.

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