Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech was excellent, but an ambiguity lies at its center that has haunted – and, to some extent, distorted – American politics since the debates over the Constitution in 1787. 

Much of Obama’s speech can be read as a justification for a strong national government—to provide Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, to meet “the threat of climate change,” to ensure and promote economic and social equality, to build roads, and to devise rules to ensure “competition and fair play.” But Obama doesn’t talk straightforwardly about the need for a strong national government. He praises instead “our skepticism of central authority.” 

When Obama wants to talk about a strong government, he talks about “collective action,”  of what “we must do ... together, as one nation and one people” and of what (echoing the Constitution) “we the people” believe or can do, even though the only way we can actually do these things is through government. By using a rhetorical sleight of hand, Obama attempts to get around Americans’ “skepticism of central authority.” By doing that, he leaves unexamined and unchallenged the prevailing opposition to “big government.”  And that’s not just an academic concern.  It currently divides the parties and much of the country.  

This rhetorical sleight of hand goes back to the debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the Constitution. (I borrow here liberally from Gordon Wood’s fine book The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787). In arguing for a strong national government (with aristocratic components) as opposed to the weak state-based government laid out in the Articles of Confederation, the Federalists invoked the idea of popular sovereignty and “we the people.”   

Popular sovereignty had a strong democratic, egalitarian ring to it that was borrowed from the rhetoric of the anti-Federalists, but its real purpose was to discredit the anti-Federalists’ idea of state sovereignty. If the Federalists had openly advocated a strong national government run by a President and Senate, neither of which was elected directly by the people, they would have incurred accusations of trying to replicate Britain’s monarchy and House of Lords. So instead they talked of “we the people” (a phrase inserted by a Federalist author) and of popular sovereignty. The Federalists, Wood writes, “expropriated and exploited the language that more rightfully belonged to their opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics between ideology and motives that was never again closed.”

Obama uses the phrase “we the people” and the promise of collective action to avoid a direct justification of what government can or should do. It’s familiar and pleasing rhetoric, and, in Obama’s case, is in the service of a democratic rather than an aristocratic conception of government. But it ultimately avoids the central question of government that has plagued American politics since 1787 and created nothing but grief for Obama himself during his first term when Tea Party activists invoked the phrase to justify their individualist or states-rights interpretation of democracy. The sad fact is that the Tea Partiers had as much right to their interpretation of the ambiguously used phrase as Obama and his liberal supporters do.

It may be that Americans will never directly address the question of whether we need a strong government. Our Lockean heritage of minimal government, forged in the American Revolution and reaffirmed by twentieth centuries tyrannies, may be too strong to surmount except at times of war and 25-percent unemployment. But to say that is to consign the country itself never to accepting fully that many of the greatest problems we face can only be addressed through a strong national government.