President Obama used his inaugural address to make a case – a case for a progressive view of government, and a case for the particular things that government should do in our time.
He gave a speech in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural and Ronald Reagan’s first: Like both, Obama’s was unapologetic in offering an argument for his philosophical commitments and an explanation of the policies that naturally followed. Progressives will be looking back to this speech for many years, much as today’s progressives look back to FDR’s, and conservatives to Reagan’s.
Obama will be seen as combative in his direct refutation of certain conservative ideas, and it was especially good to see him argue — in a passage that rather pointedly alluded to Paul Ryan’s worldview — that social insurance programs encourage rather than discourage risk-taking and make us a more, not less, dynamic society. “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” he said. “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” This is one of the most important arguments liberals have made since FDR’s time, and in the face of an aggressive attack now on the very idea of a social insurance state, it was important that Obama make it again.
Yet the president pitched his case by basing it on a long, shared American tradition. He rooted his egalitarian commitments in the promises of our founding. The Declaration of Independence was the driving text– as it was for Martin Luther King, whom we also celebrated today, and as it was for Abraham Lincoln.
Obama’s refrain “We, the people” reminded us that “we” is the very first word of our Constitution and that a commitment to community and the common good is as American Washington, Adams and Jefferson. The passages invoking that phrase spoke of shared responsibility – “we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.” Obama said a powerful “no” to radical individualism (a point my colleague Greg Sargent made well earlier today in the course of a kind and generous reference to my book “Our Divided Political Heart”).
Some will no doubt think (and write) that Obama should have sought more lofty and non-partisan ground. The problem with this critique is that it asks Obama to speak as if the last four years had not happened. It asks him to abandon the arguments he has been making for nearly two years. It asks us to pretend that we do not have a great deal at stake in the large debate over government’s role that we have been having over an even longer period.
Neither Roosevelt nor Reagan gave in to such counsel of philosophical timidity, and both of their speeches are worth rereading in light of Obama’s.
“We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it,” Roosevelt declared. “[W]e recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization. . . . We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”
“In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem,” Reagan said. “It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed. It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.”
Like these two presidents, Obama offered his fellow citizens the “why” behind what he thought and what he proposed to do — a point made to me after the speech by former Rep. Dave Obey. In my most recent column, I argued that Obama’s re-election (and the way he won it) had liberated him to be “more at ease declaring exactly what he is for and what he is seeking to achieve.” And that is exactly what he did in this speech.
It was a perfect day. Cold but not freezing. Crowded but not crushing. A diverse people celebrating yet another historic day in the nation’s capital.
In one poignant moment, he paused while reentering the Capitol and turned for a last look at his kingdom and subjects: “I want to take a look one more time,” said President Obama. “I’m not going to see this again.”
Okay, fine, he’s not king and voters are not subjects. At least not yet. But it must have felt that way, especially having just delivered an inaugural address that informed the nation that things are about to change, royally.
Bipartisanship brunches notwithstanding, there was no hint in Obama’s words that he was interested in chatting up his political opposition over common ground. When he turned to bid farewell to a memory, he might as well have been bidding farewell to his former self — the conciliatory politician who once declared that there is no red America nor a blue America.
“Sayonara, suckers. You’ll never see that guy again.”
Obama may have entered the presidency hoping to bring an end to partisanship, but he entertains no such fantasies now. As he once told a handful of reporters on Air Force One, “I’m no patsy.”
Confident and experienced in his second term, Obama has become fully himself. Which is not to say that I disagree with everything or even most of what he said — at least thematically. Who isn’t for justice, equality, love, climate stability and peace in our time? Sign me up.
Confession: With speeches as with movies, I’m not much of an instant critic. I don’t watch a movie; I enter it. I want to lose myself, to feel what the actor feels, to experience the world as he does. I check my snark at the door.
Thus, Pollyanna saw the inauguration this way: Obama, the first black president entering a second term on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, seized the moment and left perfect storms whimpering in envy. Expansive in his vision of a United States, bound by common purpose and the belief that all men and women are created equal, he reiterated the Great American Truth: That every man and women has an inalienable right to pursue happiness and prosperity on a level playing field, equal in all ways under all laws.
Sing it! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. . . . His truth is marching on!
Then Obama said: “We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
Yes, yes, yes! I’ll have what he’s having. I’ll go sleeveless in winter and cut my bangs! Ofcourse we change when necessary. And of course we have to work to keep those truths . . .truthful.
Then along comes little Miss Monday Morning, who always begins her sentences with, “Yes, but.” What does this mean, substantively? Ah:
“The commitments we make to each other through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Loose translation: Entitlement reform will not be topping the president’s second-term agenda. What it means beyond this is any palm reader’s guess.
We understand that we’re not a nation of takers (as Paul Ryan once regrettably put it), but how entitlement programs that far exceed our ability to pay for them “free us to take the risks that make this country great” is gobbledygook of the first order. It reeks of caffeine and the smug satisfaction familiar to all writers, who, upon crafting a sentence that is full of sound and fury signifying nothing, ignore the editor’s imperative: Delete, delete, delete. Or as I prefer to put it, kill your little darlings.
What it all really means, of course, is that Barack Obama has been liberated by a second term, free to take risks that he hopes will make his legacy great. This is his moment, hisemancipation proclamation, his hinge point of history — and there’s no looking back now.