The Aspirational Inaugural

Barack Obama, at his second swearing in, placed his hand on two Bibles, one owned by Abraham Lincoln and one belonging to Martin Luther King Jr. One man white, one man black, both committed to civil rights. The symbolism was rich. Too bad, however, neither the spirit of Lincoln’s magnanimity nor the spirit of King’s oratory was present in the President’s inaugural address.

To be fair, inaugural addresses are rarely inspirational, and second addresses less so. The exceptions are Lincoln’s two, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first, and John F. Kennedy’s only. But for one who’s PR touts his oratorical prowess as not just Lincolnesque but Churchillian, one would expect a little lift on such a lofty occasion—a speech that would disprove the rule and join ranks with the exceptional exceptions. However, instead of inspiration we got aspiration.

What did Obama aspire to do with his second inaugural? Two things, I think.

First, capitalizing on a fortunate twist of history (his inauguration fell on MLK Day), he wanted to establish himself as the third great civil rights leader in the United States—ranking himself with those who lived through Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall, and MLK’s speech on the National Mall.

Second, the President wanted to position the Democratic Party as the leftist party for years to come. The President knows he’ll make little headway on his progressive program until after the midterm elections (and maybe not even then). But whether he gets his agenda through Congress or not, Obama’s second inaugural address established a clear marker that he is a leftist and that’s the direction the country should proceed.

As a piece of rhetoric the speech is remarkably forgettable. Little was original. Obama cribbed a 2005 MLK Day press release from Washington Senator Maria Cantwell: “We affirm the promise of our democracy.” He quoted the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, alluded to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“of, and by, and for the people”), quoted from Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech (“survive half-slave and half-free”), parroted British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin (“peace in our time”)—the same one who tried to appease Hitler and of whom Winston Churchill said, “in the depths of that dusty soul there is nothing but abject surrender”—and even alluded to a Beatles’ lyric (“the love we commit to one another must be equal as well”).

What was remarkably memorable, however, was the neat trick of co-opting the Founders by interpreting history through his progressive lens. Using the Declaration as his backdrop, Obama intoned the Constitution’s preamble formula of “We the people” to explain and expound on our founding truths. He said “that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges” and that “America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess . . . a gift for reinvention.”

This language is very similar to four years before when he declared that he would “fundamentally transform America.”

According to Obama, the Founders were progressives, so fidelity to their principles is fidelity to progressivism—to reinvention. Obama’s vision of “We the people”—of our togetherness in “advancing the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall”—requires “collective action.” Government action. He names the great progressive programs from the New Deal and the Great Society: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. But where was the celebration of individual freedom, of small business, of family, of local community, of church and service organization? Nowhere. Instead, to bolster “collective action,” he set up a series of straw-men arguments—arguments that no one is arguing against:

  • “For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.”
  • “No single person can train all the math and science teachers, we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.”
  • “We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

But more than this, Obama’s estimation of challenges reads more like a list of progressive wish fulfillment. Our challenge, according to the President, isn’t from the continuing threat of terrorism. No—”A decade of war is now ending.” Our challenge isn’t from the continuing threat of economic collapse. No—”An economic recovery has begun.” So what are the great tasks set before America?

  • Climate change
  • Equal pay for women
  • Gay marriage
  • Voters’ rights
  • Immigration reform
  • Gun control

“That is our generation’s task—to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and pursuit of happiness real for every American.” Of course Obama knows that some will take offense at his progressive interpretation of our founding documents, so he says, “Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness.” Whether that’s the case or not, however, one thing must never be in dispute—progress. “Progress does not compel us,” the President continued, “to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.”

And the action we must take, if we are to be true to “our most ancient values and enduring ideals”—the action, no doubt the Founders would take if they were alive today—is the action that says freedom is found in progressive government.

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