Published for Washington Post, January 21, 2013

A  young reporter who has covered only President Obama’s first term has already witnessed several political epochs.

Obama’s election was a symbol of reconciliation in America’s longest, bloodiest conflict — the one that produced Antietam. It was followed by a partisan lunge to fulfill the dreams of the Great Society by delivering universal health care. Which was followed by an ideological backlash that shifted control of the House, led by activists who talked as if the whole welfare state might be undone. Which was followed by Obama’s victorious reelection campaign, which turned the mobilization of partisans and ethnic groups into an exact science and reengaged the culture war on abortion.

The compression of these ideological mood swings into four years has left an impression of political instability, perhaps bipolarity. Both parties overreach. Their tone is often frantic and overheated. They focus mainly on energizing the faithful rather than persuading the undecided.

Such polarization has deep roots. Parties, communities and regions have sorted themselves by ideology, producing citizens who operate in separate partisan worlds. Partisan media outlets succeed through the reinforcement and exaggeration of grievances. Most House members represent safe districts in which their greatest political fear is offending those who vote in primaries.

What can a presidential inaugural address do to oppose these centrifugal forces? Probably not much. Maybe admit some mutual fault and call for a new beginning. Maybe direct attention to unifying national values beyond current controversies. Maybe just assert the moral duties of kindness and civility we owe each other in a democracy.

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