Aiming Low, Missing Greatness

A lack of visionary ideas marks the start of Barack Obama's second term

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME; Obama: Getty Images

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That sort of discussion might change the shape of our politics, enabling new coalitions that make terms like liberal and conservative irrelevant. But this President, sadly--no, shockingly--seems to see the options as more or less, rather than better or worse. It may be that the blather of his opponents has been so oppressive that he is still in a defensive crouch, just a bit more aggressive after the election returns. The blunt-force idiocy of current conservative argument was on lurid display in the Republican response to the State of the Union by the dry-mouthed, unsaviorly Marco Rubio, who actually said the President believes that "our free-enterprise economy" is "the cause of our problems." Such drivel makes the President's dull rationality seem almost ... visionary.

It turns out, though, that Obama is not a visionary. His moments of passion are a bit too accessible. His Inaugural celebration of the equality we have achieved was worthy, but not very challenging. His State of the Union peroration calling for a vote on gun control was worthy too--but why didn't he mention the need to reform mental-health laws and programs so that more of our violently ill young people can be placed in secure settings, a goal perhaps more important and certainly more difficult to achieve?

He closed the speech with a celebration of a police officer who took 12 bullets defending a Sikh temple. "That's just the way we're made," the officer said. We're citizens, Obama amplified. But most of us aren't very active citizens, though, and the President never addressed the responsibilities that accompany citizenship. He asked nothing of us. But government isn't only about taking from some and giving to others. It is about the creation and maintenance of something much larger than all of us--a learning, evolving democracy, which requires an informed, rigorous public. I haven't heard a politician speak honestly about the sacrifices required for greatness in a long time.

TO READ JOE'S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

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