President Obama’s second inaugural address wasn’t eloquent, but it was effective.
As oratory, it made one false step after another, the result of straining for presidential orotundity. “For we, the people,” he said, for example, “understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” A “shrinking few” makes it sound as if they are declining, or perhaps shy, and a “growing many” as if they are prospering — the opposite of his intention. The words are supposed to reinforce the argument.
And when discussing foreign policy, even speechwriters as young as Obama’s ought to know to avoid Neville Chamberlain’s notorious phrase, “peace in our time.”
Politically, however, the speech drove home its message: that President Obama stands in the tradition of Jefferson and Lincoln, and that those who oppose the Obama administration must also oppose the principles of Jefferson and Lincoln, and are therefore outside the pale of American democracy.
Tactically, the speech was a riposte to the Tea Party, which in its correct but haphazard way had tried to associate the American Revolution with opposition to Obama. Strategically, the second inaugural continued Obama’s effort, announced as early as 2006, to reverse the Reagan Revolution, delegitimize the conservative movement, and restore the Democrats as the majority party and liberalism as America’s official faith.
Obama strives, in short, to do to the Republican party what Jefferson did to the Federalists, Lincoln did to the Democrats of his day, and, above all, Franklin Roosevelt did to the GOP in the 1930s: cast the formerly dominant party into the outer, undemocratic darkness. FDR’s demonization of the Republicans reached its ruthless culmination in his reelection campaign of 1936. Having blasted them as “the party of Toryism” four years before, he elaborated on their treason the second time around, denouncing Republican leaders (though not their misguided followers) as “the privileged princes of . . . new economic dynasties, thirsting for power,” who were eager to create “a new despotism” built upon “concentration of control over material things.”
Throughout the campaign, Roosevelt pressed his party’s identification with the patriots of 1776. He ordered that the Democratic platform be written as a loose imitation of the Declaration of Independence, beginning and ending with paragraphs proclaiming, “We hold this truth to be self-evident.” To pick an example, the Democrats announced it was self-evident that “twelve years of Republican surrender to the dictatorship of a privileged few have been supplanted by a Democratic leadership which has returned the people themselves to the place of authority, and has revived in them new faith and restored the hope which they had almost lost.”
Obama followed FDR’s playbook, even unto the revival of hope and change. In fact, the 44th president’s indictment of the Republicans was much milder than Roosevelt’s, mostly because of the difference in their circumstances. In the midst of the Depression, the GOP was identified with Herbert Hoover, a figure far easier to excoriate than Ronald Reagan, whose successful presidency, even after two intervening Bushes, still buoys his party’s reputation.
In the 2012 campaign, Obama sided, to use his terms, with the middle class against the millionaires. But the underlying and decisive charge that the Republicans were led by a cabal of un-American plutocrats was never far away. In his acceptance speech at the convention last September, he argued, for instance, that “a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom . . . without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.” That selfish, unpatriotic view of freedom is the conservative view, he insinuates, which opposes all good things. The many good things conservatives oppose include, according to his second inaugural, equal opportunity, social security (in both small and capital letters), human dignity, reasoned debate, equal pay for women, equality for gays, short lines at the voting booth, “keeping our all our children . . . safe from harm,” acceptance of “the overwhelming judgment of science” on global warming, and, presumably for non-scientists, the duties of divine-right environmentalism (we must “preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”).
Obama wants to seize the title deeds of American patriotism from the Reaganite Republicans. To do that, he has tried his best, following Bill Clinton’s example, to replace memories of lefty flag-burning from the Sixties with recent images of liberals’ effusively embracing flag and country and the military. After initial resistance, Obama even agreed to wear a flag pin on his lapel. God, too, gets strange new respect: Though He was booed at the Democratic convention and got admitted to the platform only by chicanery, He is mentioned six times in Obama’s second inaugural (seven, if you count a quotation from the Declaration of Independence).
For the strategy to work, Obama must, however, redefine patriotism and its object. Accordingly, he began his inaugural address with a prominent quotation from the Declaration’s most famous sentence. This was not primarily a gesture of civic solidarity. It was his way of reinterpreting American principles, of staking out new territory for the familiar words “equality” and “liberty,” which he proceeded to redefine in the rest of the speech.
This is an old liberal parlor trick. Into the magic hat goes a fluttering canary; presto chango, out comes a fat, complacent rabbit. Several commentators (especially Scott Johnson at Powerline) have already exposed the president’s sleight of hand. But for sheer audacity, it’s hard to beat the ideas juxtaposed and equated in this speech’s couple of thousand words.
To put it briefly: Obama began by saluting “the enduring strength of our Constitution” (not its wisdom or justice) and affirming “the promise of our democracy,” meaning the country as it will be, the America of our imagination, which to a modern liberal is the only thoroughly justifiable object of patriotic sentiments. Then he quoted the great sentence from the Declaration that begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . ” One sentence later — one sentence! — and the Declaration was in the rearview mirror and we were off on “a never-ending journey” to “bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.”
At least those foundational “words” seemed to have a meaning, or to have once had one. Because a short half-page later, Obama explains that “our purpose” is “what the moment requires” and that it is doing what the moment requires that “will give real meaning to our creed.”
So now the meaning of the Declaration’s solemn propositions seems to come entirely, or almost entirely, from our own needs, preferences, and choices. Only urgent and imperative actions such as fighting climate change and protecting entitlements “will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.” The fathers’ Declaration, though perhaps meaningful to them in their age, is empty and meaningless in ours until we fill it up with our own values. The “timeless spirit” of the Founding obligates us to follow the changing spirit of our times — always as interpreted by liberals, of course.
Thus “equality,” which for Lincoln meant the recognition of our equal humanity and therefore equal freedom, means for Obama the compulsory redistribution of wealth. “Liberty,” in turn, transforms into the right to live out the lifestyle of our choice, free from others’ offensive remarks, and with federal subsidies as necessary or demanded.
Even as the Declaration’s original meaning fades, so does the Constitution’s. Toward the end of the speech, Obama mentioned that the oath of office he had taken that day “was an oath to God and country,” not so different from the oath a new citizen or a soldier takes. Actually, though all these oaths are sworn before God, they are properly speaking oaths to support the Constitution. The presidential oath is emphatic, and distinctive, in that regard. He alone (unlike new citizens or soldiers) swears to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Obama overlooked the main element of his own oath, which is not so surprising given his allegiance to the living constitution, which is rather different from the written one.
The galling thing is that his efforts to rewrite the American political tradition may succeed. Franklin Roosevelt’s similar project not only worked, but worked so well that for two generations New Deal Democrats dominated American elections, remade American government, and reinterpreted our Constitution almost at will. Obama is no FDR, but then he doesn’t need to be. Liberalism has already done a great deal to define democracy downward.
Where are the Republican politicians, the conservative statesmen, who will dedicate themselves to opposing, and reversing, this latest installment of the corruption of our republican principles and institutions? By now, all the usual arguments about the bad economy and our burgeoning debt have been exhausted. The usual electoral stratagems urged by the usual GOP consultants have been tried and have failed. It will take uncommon political intelligence and virtue, not to mention good luck, to rescue our free government.
— Charles R. Kesler is author of I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.