The Second Inaugural: A Big Speech

[A little late to post this, I know, but I just realized I had not shared it with the League when I first wrote it. — EI]

I don’t know what I expected to hear during the president’s second inaugural address, but the most unapologetic, direct, and fearless speech in defense of liberalism by an American president since LBJ was not it. And yet that’s what Obama delivered.

Liberalism has changed, of course, since LBJ’s days. The Obama version of the Great Society doesn’t do much when it comes to labor rights or the vicissitudes of globalization. But Obama-era liberalism isn’t nearly the husk that lefties, in their angrier moments, often claim (myself included). Beyond pushing global warming to the heart of his speech, rather than treating it as a check-list end note, as has often been his style, Obama also delivered the most passionate and thorough endorsement of gay rights — indeed, of the gay rights movement  — of any president ever. Not a high bar, perhaps, but one he cleared with ease.

So even though he gave very brief lip-service to the idea of taming deficits and controlling welfare state spending, the clear point of Obama’s address was to provide a counter to Bill Clinton’s famous assertion that “the era of big government is over.” It wasn’t then, it isn’t now, and if we care about human equality and the struggle for a more perfect union, Obama implied, it never will be:

That is our generation’s task—to make these words, these rights, these values—of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will 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.

For now 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. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

Maybe Obama imagines that in a few decades or centuries, the chaos and cruelty of a solitary existence will be mercifully forgotten. Maybe he thinks that challenges like climate change and the creative destruction of global capitalism will be solved in the near-future, and that one day mass politics will cease to be concerned with mass problems and will focus instead on who-knows-what. Obama might truly believe that collective action, through the federal government, is only a necessity in the here and now — but I doubt he does. And I certainly don’t.

Beyond recognizing its historical value for the gay rights movement, and its less-historic but nevertheless consequential rejection of the small government ethos, I’d say it’s too soon to go Big Picture on the speech. It’s exceedingly unlikely that this speech will be the one that somehow shifts a gear in the Republican Party’s soul. As Democrats have learned, giving a great speech isn’t actually worth much when it comes to getting bills through Congress. That’ll take some not-so-lofty doing.

However, just because a speech’s value is intangible doesn’t mean it’s not real. At heart, politics is a tribal venture, and there’s a hard to quantify but undeniable for the liberal project in having a president that allows himself, after his last election’s been won, to take up the mantle during one of American politics’ most revered traditions. Obama’s been quoted before saying that his goal is something like that of a supertanker captain’s — to get this enormous, powerful, but slow ship of state pointed in the right direction. Actual legislation is overwhelmingly the main means through which this happens.

But words matter, too. They’re what — if anything — we remember.

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16 thoughts on “The Second Inaugural: A Big Speech

  1. “it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way”

    Clearly.

    For me, the progressive and historical elements of the speech, and the context surrounding it (ceremonially and otherwise), only makes the “call to action/live up to our ideals” platitudes that much mroe tiresome and infuriating.

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    • Upset that so much of the news media is intent on finding deeper meaning where there is only dry toast marketing.

      Also, they can be elevated above platitudes when uttered with some conviction, or level of evidenciary truth baked into the overal rhetorical context.

      Am I surpised that a U.S. president is sermonizing about the Constitution and Declaration of Independence? No–but I do find it tiresome/disingenous and worthy of the requisite level of contempt which should accompany those things.

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  2. “So even though he gave very brief lip-service to the idea of taming deficits and controlling welfare state spending, the clear point of Obama’s address was to provide a counter to Bill Clinton’s famous assertion that “the era of big government is over.” It wasn’t then, it isn’t now, and if we care about human equality and the struggle for a more perfect union, Obama implied, it never will be:”

    More accurately, the era of spending more than we take in will never end. (Actually it will at some point when there is a default but..). Hey, you want a large gov’t, PAY for it. If taxes paid for the current size of the gov’t there would be a more honest debate about what was “affordable” there might, just might, be some sense brought back to the dialogue. There would also likely be rioting in the streets….

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    • Pretty much.

      Every time one of the invariably stupid budget flare-ups occur, for as much as I loathe the politicians’ part of it I’m always reminded how polling of the public generally comes out on it:

      “We want a balanced budget! And low taxes!! And if you touch anything other than food stamps & foreign aid you’re Dead To Us…”

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    • We did. And then we elected Bush. *shrug*.

      One blogger — just recently (maybe Kevin Drum) pointed out that Republicans don’t care about deficits. They care about fiscal crises, because they can (theoretically) use those to get what they want (unpopular cuts to entitlements and increasingly more tax cuts and deregulation), but deficits aren’t the issue — they’re the tool.

      Which makes sense. “Starve the beast” is predicated upon the situation getting so bad that the politically unpopular can be done. The absolute last thing the GOP wants is a stable situation (as it was at the end of Clinton’s second term).

      People who truly cared about the deficit would not start deficit reduction plans with “First, massively cut taxes”.

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      • It’s never the income that’s a problem, it’s always been the spending. Historically, the percentage of income is generally steady. The cause of the deficits is the spending, and Bush (at least B2) was as bad as any Democrat. The majority Repubs, when they were in power, were the same. They both spent like drunken sailors.

        I once donated money to a local Repub running for office and I got onto their mailing lists. Now ever federal election I get calls. It’s always the same old same old about the spendthrift demos. I delight in reminding them about how their team supported massive spending as well when they were in power and ask them why I should trust them now, much less give them money. They usually don’t have a response.

        “People who truly cared about the deficit would not start deficit reduction plans with “First, massively cut taxes”.” I partially agree, but what should be done is “massively cut spending”.

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  3. Beyond recognizing its historical value for the gay rights movement, and its less-historic but nevertheless consequential rejection of the small government ethos, I’d say it’s too soon to go Big Picture on the speech.

    What I’d like is for us — all of us — to move beyond size as a worthwhile measure of government. It’s completely meaningless; this is a big country, with a diverse population; for those reasons alone, any government will be big. Small towns now have, for the most basic of services, budgets in the millions of dollars. Size is irrelevant.

    But quality? Competency? A willingness to tackle and solve problems, including intrusive and convoluted government, that hinder citizens rather then help them achieve those basic rights?
    Competency seems the best measure of a government that’s successfully fostering life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for all the citizens who comprise that government. Size is meaningless; and discussing government in terms of ‘small government’ or ‘big government’ becomes a distraction from the actual work of creating competent government.

    Thank you, Elias. Great post.

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    • Daniel Larison has a piece up, Why the GOP could be in the wilderness for a long time. He essentially makes the argument Republicans don’t recognize that some of their most cherished policies are the problem, in his words: Having trashed almost everything that their party was supposed to represent, many Republican leaders act as if the worst thing that ever happened during the Bush years was a profusion of earmarks. Until they stop kidding or lying to themselves about what happened the last time there was unified Republican government, it’s doubtful that the public will be willing to entrust them with that much power..

      In the comments, beejeez says:

      You don’t have to be a liberal to be OK with pre-Bush 2 tax rates.
      You don’t have to be a liberal to resist wasteful Defense spending levels and to see the wisdom of staying out of wars.
      You don’t have to be a liberal to live with a health care system many Republicans endorsed two decades ago.
      You don’t have to be a liberal to practice a productive legislative relationship with the other party.
      You don’t have to be a liberal to allow that at least some regulation is essential for a trustworthy business environment.
      You don’t have to be a liberal to quit gratuitously insulting minorities and women.
      You don’t have to be a liberal to quit using sneaky ways to circumvent democratically representative voting results.
      You don’t have to be a liberal to use your small-state Senate seat responsibly.
      You don’t have to be a liberal to have a gun policy that respects Second Amendment rights, but isn’t written by the firearms industry.
      You don’t have to be a liberal to conserve our natural resources.

      As much as the President laid out a liberal agenda in his speech, the course of much of his governing has been, and continues to be, conservative. It’s ironic that conservatives have let him co-opt so much of their policy — much of it the fruit of 30 years of intellectual work by conservative thinkers — that they now either need to work with him or they’ve only the fringe remaining.

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  4. I don’t know what I expected to hear during the president’s second inaugural address, but the most unapologetic, direct, and fearless speech in defense of liberalism by an American president since LBJ was not it. And yet that’s what Obama delivered.

    Obama said liberal stuff! Yay! Let’s continue to optimistically pretend this actually will have implications for his policy actions, the way we have for the last four years!

    Or, y’know, we could go with what he’s actually done.

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      • Obama’s really, really good at giving speeches that make people feel like he agrees with them. But the speeches don’t actually mean anything beyond that. If he gave a liberal speech, it’s because shoring up support from the base/from the more leftish wing of the Democrats is his current political goal. It doesn’t mean it reflects either his beliefs or his intents, so trying to draw substantial meaning out of it is pointless. It was a political speech, like hundreds of others, and not in any way an ideological game-changer.

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  5. Obama might truly believe that collective action, through the federal government, is only a necessity in the here and now — but I doubt he does. And I certainly don’t.

    This whole paragraph from you is baffling. Obama’s not saying anything close to what (I think) you are saying he said. The message (and again a completely anodyne one) is that there currently are big problems, that we (for whatever value of ‘we’ one would like) need to start fixing, but we’re probably not going to get all the way there. Furthermore, the current problems are themselves just a subset of eternal problems that we’ve always had to hack away at, and we will continue to do so long after the current generation shuffles off this mortal coil, because the path to solutions are, at best, asymptotic.

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