Presidents use their inaugural addresses as an opportunity to talk about the future. But when they take the oath of office for a second time, they also use it to talk about the past.
Franklin Roosevelt used his second inaugural address, which many consider his best, to define the New Deal—not as a one-time reaction to a national economic crisis, but as a “new chapter in our book of self-government.” He proclaimed a “new order of things” in which “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Ronald Reagan used his second address, effectively, to declare Roosevelt’s era over. Reagan framed his first term as an antidote to the era when “we asked things of government that government was not equipped to give” and proof that “freedom and incentives unleash the drive and entrepreneurial genius that are the core of human progress.”
Perhaps President Obama had those speeches in mind today, because he too used the occasion to define his first term—in ways, perhaps, that will last long beyond his presidency. If his first inaugural address was a vision of a better politics, then this address was a vision of a better society—a progressive vision in which government acts boldly to protect the weak, to promote economic growth, and to solve the problems we cannot solve on our own.
The contrast to 2009 was striking. That workmanlike speech was, above all, a call for less partisan fighting. “The time has come to set aside childish things,” Obama said in 2009, making a plea for national unity. It was an honorable effort and, ultimately, a futile one. As Obama would soon learn, his political critics were already strategizing to oppose him at every turn.
But despite this resistance, Obama accomplished a great deal, more than even many of his supporters realized at the time. He stopped the country from falling into depression, laying the groundwork for future economic prosperity; he brought new regulation to Wall Street and made the tax code more progressive; he saved the auto industry and the communities that depend upon it; and he put in a place a program to make health insurance available to all. Even allowing for all of the missteps and missed opportunities, that's an impressive list.
With this speech, Obama made clear that these efforts were more than haphazard responses to crises. They were, Obama said, reaffirmation of the idea that we need energetic, activist government. He started by quoting the Declaration of Independence and the need to guarantee “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all Americans. But unlike Reagan, who saw government as an impediment to liberty, Obama said he believed that government was liberty's protector. “We have always understood that when times change, so must we,” Obama said, “that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
From there, Obama’s rejection of economic conservatism—the impulse to do less, rather than more—became more explicit:
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers. …Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. … Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”
Lest anybody mistake him for a socialist, Obama stated that “Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.” But after that acknowledgement, he reaffirmed the commitments to the welfare state, by reminding Americans of what they truly have in common—a vulnerability to misfortune. And he issued a sharp, explicit rejection of the idea that government help breeds dependency.
We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. 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.
Stated that way, these ideas may seem relatively uncontroversial—who doesn’t think government should protect the weak? Who doesn't think government can do things to foster prosperity? But in the last four years Republicans and their allies have revealed they believe those things. They have voted to end guarantees of economic security for the poor, elderly, and infirmed—and they have, most recently, even questioned help for natural disaster victims. Today Obama made clear that he believes those critics are wrong and that he interprets his reelection as proof the American people agree with him.
Obama also described how he hopes to apply this vision in the next four years, most explicitly with a new effort to address climate change, which represents not just unfinished business from the first term but perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge for the future. Obama warned supporters not to expect too much of the next four years: “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial.”
But this was a speech for future generations, as much as for today’s. Something tells me they will hear it.