“To form a more perfect union” has always been the core idea animating President Obama’s career, an attempt to bridge old divides, blending the personal and the political.
The president used his second inaugural address to try to demolish the false dichotomies that have defined the overheated political debates of the past four years, implicitly making the case that his Democratic Party’s agenda is squarely in the mainstream of American history—expanding individual freedom through collective action.
It was an audaciously political speech, a statement of personal and partisan principle, rather than the expected broad bipartisan outreach. From the outset, the president took aim at conservatives’ claim to represent the idea of American exceptionalism, arguing instead that it is achieved by the constant struggle to expand equal opportunity.
This is a decidedly Lincoln-ian reading of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, rooted in reality: “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”
As evidence, President Obama charted the many times throughout our history when citizen movements were ultimately successful because of government action, making his second inaugural address double as a progressive manifesto.
In the most moving section, the president seamlessly traced the expansion of women’s rights from Seneca Falls to Martin Luther King’s March on Washington to the Stonewall riots. Not incidentally, these groups are all considered core to the Obama coalition—but more important, they are now seen not merely as interest groups but as core parts of the American community. The president’s historic addition of gay rights to this litany of liberation movements marked a moment of permanent legitimacy of this community, now codified in a presidential inaugural address.
This defense of Democratic Party ideals was consistent throughout, especially when the president declared, “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.”
This was a barbed reference to the “makers versus takers” riff that was a constant applause line of the Romney-Ryan ticket, leading to Mitt’s 47 percent gaffe.
Likewise, when the president recounted how “together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers,” it was an articulation of the idea he clumsily defended during the campaign, reduced to the instantly infamous bumper-sticker slogan “You Didn’t Build That.”
The president did try to build a broad foundation of American consensus on ideas that conservatives sometimes try to claim for their own: “We have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.”
But aside from brief mentions of the need to “revamp our tax code [and] reform our schools…reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit,” this was not a speech that spent a lot of time reaching out to Republicans on policy. Instead, the president was content to invoke historic perspective in the hopes of cooling current ideological passions, while cautioning: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling for reasoned debate.”
While partisan divisions are often exaggerated for political gain, Obama’s second inaugural did put forward an inclusive foreign-policy vision that recalled the old wisdom that partisan politics ought to end at the water’s edge: “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”
This is, in essence, a moderated version of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, with the crucial exclusion of our misadventure into Iraq. The word “terrorism” was, however, notably absent from the speech, as was a vision for how to address the instability, extremism, and violence emerging in the wake of the Arab Spring.
The sweep of President Obama’s speech led to an inevitable downside—it was a speech without a single clear theme or an immediately identifiable iconic line, like FDR’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” That is how inaugural addresses are filed away in the library of history, and on that count, Obama’s second inaugural might ultimately be found to be lacking. It was a problem that also afflicted his first inaugural address, though on a speech-to-speech comparison the second effort outpaced the first in both ambition and articulation.
The start of a second term is a time for hard work. The clock is now ticking on what has historically been the most productive two years of a presidency. Despite all the enduring political divisions, President Obama’s historic legitimacy can no longer be convincingly questioned. “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time,” the president cautioned. “But it does require us to act in our time.”
The urgency of the challenges we face, combined with signs of an improving economy, offer some small, rational reason for hope as well face the immediate future. Looming debt-ceiling debates may be daunting, but the expected acceleration of immigration reform might provide hope for constructive action across the aisle, propelled by mutual self-interest.
The invoked spirit of togetherness might be starkly missing from our politics, but the now-seasoned president did us all a service by exposing the false choices that frame too many of our debates. Because a sober look at American history shows us that the rights of the individual and the community have always been entwined, and often prove complementary despite the inevitable moments of tension. Seeing clear to this core idea requires perspective—the thing we have least of in our hyperpartisan debates—but if in this ritualistic moment American unity we can recenter ourselves to agree even on a set of historic facts, it would be a welcome start to a second term.
Following through on this promise will require continued reflection on one last line, tucked in at the end of the president’s address: “My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction.”
To that, I’ll add at least one citizen’s “Amen.”