It was a thoroughly 21st-century affair: old political bulls, rappers, and pop singers, fashions by Thom Browne and Kate Spade, high-tech security measures, and a pre-inauguration message from the president via Twitter. President Barack Obama, being sworn in for a second term, was doing the thing he does best: giving a speech largely divorced from reality.
He is very much a man of his times — perhaps the characteristic man of his times — but President Obama sought to connect his project of converting the United States into a social democracy with the 18th-century Enlightenment liberalism of the Founding Fathers and the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But social democracy is not compatible with the Founders’ values, a fact that cannot be rendered inert even by so fine a rhetorician as President Obama.
“History tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing,” he said, “that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. 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.” These are very fine words, and true words. But the principles they contain have not guided President Obama’s first term, and there is no reason to believe that these principles will guide his second.
The very form of government cited by the president above — a republic — necessitates a particular conception of citizenship (another word the president leaned heavily upon) and of the citizen’s relationship to the state. It is the American conception of citizenship in a constitutional republic that defines the unique political character of our nation, and that is the very thing that President Obama promised to ignore: “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.”
Progress sometimes does require us to settle questions about the role of government: Either government is to have the power to force citizens to violate their consciences in the name of insurance reform or it is not. Either the items in the Bill of Rights mean what they say or they do not. Either the Second Amendment is about hunting or it is about something else. Either the authority of the federal government has discoverable limits or it is unlimited. Taxes are either a tool for raising revenue or a tool for achieving some vision of what the president’s admirers like to call “social justice.” The president will have to answer these questions one way or another. Indeed, he has done so implicitly, and his refusal to make his assumptions explicit does not unmake them.
Even such gauzy generalities as the president favors are incompatible with the solid facts of his record in office. And the more specific his statements, the more specifically wrong they are. “A decade of war is now ending,” the president declared. “An economic recovery has begun.” There is rather more and rather less to both of those oversimplified observations than is accounted for by the president’s address.
An economic recovery is indeed under way. It has been under way since June of 2009, well before the implementation of most of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other economic policies. But that recovery has been a weak one, and there are 8.3 million fewer Americans in the work force today than there were the last time Barack Obama took the oath of office. From boondoggles such as Solyndra to banana-republic gimmicks such as the $1 trillion coin Democrats have touted as an end-run around statutory limits on the government’s debt, Barack Obama and his congressional allies have undermined the credibility of U.S. economic institutions. These policies have failed on the president’s own terms; they have proved unable to secure strong economic growth or to reduce unemployment to acceptable levels. We have had a “recovery” only in the technical economic sense of the term, partly as a result of economic cycles beyond the reach of the White House and partly as a result of developments toward which the president and his party are hostile, such as the resurgence of the U.S. fossil-fuel industry.