The U.S. presidential inauguration is a unique institution in America’s political life—actually, it is unique in the world in its insistence on viewing current challenges in light of the nation’s founding principles.
In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama used that history to chart a bold course of liberal progressivism that confirms his intent, and success so far, at altering the economic and social direction of the nation.
In his first campaign for high office in 2008, the president stirred controversy when he described his campaign as being about “fundamentally transforming” America. He also raised eyebrows (especially vis-à-vis his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton) when he told a Nevada newspaper he aspired to put the country on a different path in the way Reagan had done two decades earlier: "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, that Bill Clinton did not.”
Obama sought to have Reagan’s impact, but in the opposite direction, and today’s inaugural address signals just that. His address in some ways seems even modeled after Reagan’s second inaugural address, though it most of all flows quite directly from Obama’s first inaugural.
In his speech today, the president cited the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and said: “Today we continue a neverending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.”
The president offered a contemporary vision of the American ideals of liberty and equality that Reagan, or even Clinton, would not have espoused.
With his embrace of neutrality as regards heterosexual and homosexual unions in the social sphere, his emphasis on peace rather than strength in the military domain and his full-throttled adoption of green politics in the climate debate, the president shifted the political ground decidedly to the left.
And so it was in the realm of economics, where he put the accent on government-provided security versus free enterprise—a reverse of Reagan’s emphasis:
“We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity,” Obama said. “…we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
He cast America’s social safety net as an expression of government caring, and as the floor that affords America’s entrepreneurs the courage to risk capital:
“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.”
Even Bill Clinton’s liberal politics could not escape the political vocabulary bequeathed by Reagan, who cast government as the problem rather than the solution.
Reagan pushed for sweeping tax cuts and simultaneously launched a military buildup that fueled (at that time) historically high deficits, forcing reductions in the nonmilitary role of government.
Obama has done the opposite, achieving an expansion of government in health care and other domestic areas, and framing a solution around tax rate increases and military spending reductions. Reagan starved government, Obama has nurtured it.
In his second inaugural address, Reagan said “history is a ribbon, always unfurling; history is a journey.”
Americans, whether they support or oppose Obama’s policies, must acknowledge his success at achieving his transformational goals.
The president lurched markedly to the left from the journey Reagan defined. As Obama said in his first inaugural four years ago: “Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end.”
And indeed the president pushed forward in Monday’s address, describing a journey (a word he used six times) led by a more activist government.
Acknowledging the lack of consensus about the role of government (“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time,” he said, “but it does require us to act in our time”) he nevertheless signaled clearly that in his next four years, as in his first, Americans will be seeing, as Alexander Hamilton famously described, no shortage of “energy in the executive.”