5:26 PM EST, January 21, 2013
In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama laid out clearly and forcefully the philosophy that animates his presidency and placed it in context of America's history and values. He believes in individual initiative and hard work, in the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But he believes that history has time and again forced us as a nation to recalibrate our notions of what actions are necessary to uphold those values — from the end of slavery with the Civil War to the enfranchisement of women during the Progressive Era to the dawn of the New Deal welfare state and the realization of equality through the civil rights movement. And he believes that evolution is never-ending. If he had given this speech years ago — perhaps at the dawn of the tea party movement — we might find ourselves in a very different place now.
This speech conveyed a realization that the challenge he has faced in trying to address the nation's problems — an economy that has left millions behind and a budget deficit that threatens to bankrupt our children, a broken immigration system and a warming planet — has not been the result of policy differences or even the product of poisonous partisanship but a fundamental disagreement about the meaning of America in the 21st century. Mr. Obama is faced with an opposition that does not simply wish to act as a brake on the size of government but wants to restore it to a time before the income tax and direct election of senators. Perhaps he always assumed it went without saying that "fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges." But in a world where many argue with a straight face that an amendment written during an era of single-shot muskets requires unfettered access to assault rifles — and, presumably, by extension to machine guns and grenades — that can no longer be assumed.
Mr. Obama's address included little self-congratulation about his first-term accomplishments, and although it provided a broad sweep of the challenges the nation faces, it did not lay out an explicit agenda for the next four years. What it provided was a case for the necessity, even the propriety, of government action. It reminded us through gentle repetition that the first words of our Constitution are "we the people" — a recognition of our collective identity and responsibility. "With common effort, and common purpose," President Obama concluded, "with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into the future that precious light of freedom."
This was no repetition of the hope and change of 2008. It dispensed with the notion embodied by Mr. Obama's first major national speech, his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, that all Washington needed was respect for the ideas of others, and comity would rule the day. Rather, this address reflected an understanding that what challenges us now is "absolutism," not "principle," that too many have put "centuries-long debates about the role of government" ahead of the urgent need to secure the nation's future.
This speech will not break a filibuster in the Senate or crack the unity of the far-right Republican coalition in the House of Representatives. But it counts as warning that he will not cede the debate about what it means to be an American. He will not sit by and allow obstructionism practiced in the name of the Founding Fathers to destroy the very values of liberty and equality that those fathers left us as our birthright. A president who came to the White House unprepared in the eyes of many, overly idealistic and naive, returns to it now with his ideals intact but with the hard lessons of experience. If this is to be the tone of Mr. Obama's second term, we could be in for an eventful four years.
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