Magazine | February 11, 2013, Issue

Surprise, He’s a Liberal

Obama gives his inaugural address, January 21, 2013. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Obama’s second inaugural confirmed what we knew

It was brief.

It’s tempting to stop here, having listed all the commendable aspects of the president’s second inaugural. But that would be uncharitable. So let us also acknowledge that the phrases taken from better-written speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. were tastefully cribbed.

Okay, now we’re done.

So let’s move on and offer thanks to President Obama for settling what has been one of the more ridiculous disputes in American politics for the last five years: Is Obama a committed liberal, or is he a centrist, a pragmatist, or some other fashionable term? Well, guess what — he’s a committed liberal! Shocker.

The man who ran for president the first time opposing gay marriage (and lying about his past support of it) has championed it in his second inaugural. The man who once said all the right words on reforming entitlements and grappling with the debt has now made clear that he never meant any of it. The man who rode into office on a Pegasus named “Bipartisanship” has now used the inaugural podium to fling out the last bits of manure from the Obama campaign’s near-Augean stables. Some potshots were so thinly veiled, even the mainstream media recognized them. They included cracks at Mitt Romney, the guy he had just beaten, and George W. Bush, the cause of all of America’s problems. There were also barbs aimed at voter-ID laws, those who would “deny” global warming, and other familiar liberal targets.

While it’s certainly reasonable to be surprised that Obama would exploit his second inaugural address to excoriate his political opponents, suggesting that this is some sort of new and different Barack Obama is obtuse. A gobsmacked James Fallows called this the “most progressive speech Obama has ever given,” which is ludicrous even if you look only at his speeches as president. NBC’s Chuck Todd seemed stunned that Obama wanted to “mainstream the liberal progressive movement.”

The fact is that the Obama we saw on January 21, 2013, is the same old Obama. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about his second inaugural is how unoriginal it was, both for him and for his cause. It’s a strange thing: President Obama has one of the most elevated reputations for oratorical skill of any politician, and yet he’s not known for any truly memorable speeches since his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address, or possibly his “race speech” of 2008. After nearly every other speech — State of the Union addresses, Oval Office statements, etc. — the response is that he was “surprisingly flat,” or that, for arcane reasons never fully explained, he opted not to deploy the rhetorical superpowers everyone knows he has but no one ever sees. It’s a wonderful place to be as a politician when, after you deliver a bad speech, everyone says, “He meant to do that.”

Philosophically, Obama’s inaugural was trite as well. “Obama’s speech lacked signature lines and was more direct than soaring,” concedes the liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent, “but it was nonetheless enormously ambitious. It drew a direct line from language of the Founding Fathers straight through the great progressive presidents of the 20th Century, linking the founding language of liberty directly to the great debates of the present.” True enough; the ideas in Obama’s speech were already shopworn when FDR tried to replace the Bill of Rights with his “economic bill of rights.” If you’re of a masochistic bent, go back and read Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention. It said the exact same things.

#page#In that 2008 speech he tried to rewrite the American idea of “the pursuit of happiness” into an open license for the American government to fulfill “America’s promise”: “For 232 years, at each moment when that promise was in jeopardy, ordinary men and women — students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors — found the courage to keep it alive.” That courage, he made clear, is not the courage to keep alive the American dream of the individual pursuit of happiness vouchsafed by a constitutionally circumscribed government, but the courage to relentlessly increase the size and scope of government. It stems from the understanding that “one person’s struggle is all of our struggles,” and that the only mechanism for ameliorating that struggle is the state.

Hence the ridiculous straw man Obama trots out whenever he tries to describe America without progressive government. “No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future,” he declares. Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. President.

“For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn,” Obama went on. As a conservative, I am willing to concede that government interventions (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) have improved the plights of the disabled and the needy, even if we debate whether those interventions were or remain optimally designed. As a liberal, however, Obama seems incapable of grasping that there were ever alternatives to government. Did such people have nowhere to turn besides Wash-ington? No families, no churches, no charitable organizations of any kind? For Obama, a nation without his brand of social democracy is a world where everyone is a Julia cast adrift.

The story of America as told by Obama is the unfolding realization that the constitutional order established by the Founders is inadequate to every new challenge we face. This was the “journey” Obama invoked to hold the speech together: “But we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

Really? We’ve always understood that every new challenge requires yet more “collective action”? Obama goes on to explain that investing in new technologies and “sustainable energy sources” is “what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.” So the Declaration of Independence will finally have some meaning if we pour ever more money into the corporatist green boondoggles that have already soaked up billions we’ve borrowed from China? Good to know!

At his core, like Wilson and FDR before him, Obama is skeptical of the Founders’ conception of inalienable rights that protect us from government. His is a Deweyan vision of positive liberty in which the government helps us to be all that we can be. These interventions, Obama assures us, “do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Hence, American greatness is, irreducibly and fundamentally, a government program. A free people didn’t build that, the government did.

You may have doubts about this, but Obama is sure. And his invincible confidence is all that is required. “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.” In other words, even if you, in your bitterness, insist on clinging to the real American creed, he and his followers are going to move on without you. This is an echo of his oft-repeated desire for his opponents to shut up. Objections about the proper role of government must not impede Obama’s obligation to act for progress’s sake. This is not a new Obama; it is the same community organizer who saw his job as galvanizing grievances to spur government action.

Of course, one might think that the best way to respect the already manifest meaning of our Founders’ creed would be to respect their mechanisms of limited government. But that is not an argument Obama has much use for.

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