[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.