President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural was not so much an outline of intentions as it was a re-framing of the social contract between the people and their elected government. Commentators on the left and right, mesmerized by the tick-tock of official Washington, generally have failed to see what Obama was up to in this speech: placing our times in their historical context on the long road to liberty and justice for all.
Obama outlined the enduring values that bind us as a nation and at the same time illuminated the arc of history he envisions for us as a people greater than the sum of our individuals. The rhetorical heart of his address was this:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
By linking the first women’s rights convention organized by women in 1848 to the first civil rights and voting rights movement organized in 1963 to the gay rights insurrection of 1969, Obama stitched together the march toward freedom and justice that personifies the journey of America from a contractual arrangement among land-holding white men to a vibrant, multi-national, socially complex nation.
It was not by accident that Obama opened his address by quoting from the Declaration of Independence what he called the idea that makes America exceptional: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In a Lincolnesque passage, Obama’s message to the absolutist Tea Party right-wingers who have strangled Congress and stymied his agenda was clear: You have misappropriated and misused our common history.
“History tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth,” he said. “The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.”
Moreover, he reminded the three-cornered-hat crowd, the Revolutionary War was not the only bloody fight that gave birth to our nation. “Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.”
“Together,” he repeated, America built railroads and highways, schools and colleges and coupled a free market with 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,” he said, reminding the Mitt Romney 47 percent that after the Great Depression came the New Deal, Social Security and Medicare – brought to life by the central government.
“Through it all, 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,” Obama said. “But 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.”
“Collective action.” Words that caused some on the right to (again) declare Obama a socialist or worse – a community organizer. Yet Obama explained exactly what he meant with those words: “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. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”
In other words, we need a central government that does those things for which we cannot rely on individuals. With apologies to Ronald Reagan, government is not the problem: for some things, it’s actually the solution.
Turning to the divide that Romney sought to exploit in the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama reminded his critics on the right: “We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”
Underscoring the fundamental compact on which he campaigned and which was affirmed by his re-election, Obama delivered a sharp slap at Romney and his ilk:
“We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. 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,” he said, arguing that the safety net created by the central government is what makes it possible for parents to go all-in for their childrens’ educations and for entrepreneurs to take a chance on their dreams. Programs that assure survivability are not just altruistic gifts to the “takers,” they are the net into which our fellow citizens may fall if all else fails in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
And just in case it was unclear that he was explaining to modern-day Know Nothings that the world is actually not flat, Obama touched on the anti-intellectual, anti-science tendencies of the Tea Party wing of the GOP, enunciating why we must address the threat of climate change: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”
Since 9/11 and George Bush, the Republican Party – under the whip hand of the likes of Bill Krystal and the neoconservative movement – sought to maintain power by keeping America engaged in military conflict. But, argued the president who actually found and killed Osama Bin Laden, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war . . . We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully –- not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
In other words, the social contract does not demand a government engaged in military struggle. Peace is better – “not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.” Peace is better for us.
To those in Congress and elsewhere who believe that compromise is capitulation, Obama argued, “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. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.”
But he added, “Decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
Finally, Obama’s message was that America advances toward prosperity and justice when all the people – not just the privileged – are included in the political and governmental calculations that comprise the common good.
As he put it: “With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”
Obama’s Second Inaugural was, in fact, much more than a bill of particulars or even a vision for a second term, as so many commentators have argued. It was, rather, an exposition of what constitutes the social contract in today’s America. And for that, he will be long remembered.