For the Left, this is what winning looks like. President Barack Obama gave a second inaugural address that just as easily could have been delivered by progressive darling Elizabeth Warren.
If the president didn’t repeat the phrase that Republicans threw back at him so often during the 2012 campaign — “you didn’t build that” — the speech was a meditation on the same theme of the limits of individual action. The address was a paean to collectivism, swaddled in the rhetoric of individual liberty and of fidelity to the Founding.
He began and ended with the Founding Fathers and threaded the Declaration of Independence throughout. This gave the speech a conservative sheen. He used the words “timeless,” “ancient,” “lasting,” and “enduring.” He sounded like Republican senator Marco Rubio in invoking “what makes us exceptional,” namely “our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.”
But this framing of the speech only served to amplify the ambition of President Obama’s larger political project. He hopes to reorient the American mainstream and locate conservatives outside it. He wants to take the Founders from the Right and baptize the unreconstructed entitlement state and the progressive agenda in the American creed.
In Obama’s telling, the high points of our national life are found in collective action, in the growth of government, in teachers trained and roads built. “Now, more than ever,” he declared, “we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”
He presented his agenda as the logical consequence of the Declaration of Independence’s enunciation of the equality of all men and our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Obama, that means equal-pay legislation, gay marriage, and amnesty for illegal immigrants. He included a long passage on the necessity of fighting climate change with transformative energy policies. “That’s what will lend meaning,” he said, “to the creed our fathers once declared.” (One wonders what Thomas Jefferson would have made of the argument that his handiwork is meaningless absent federal subsidies for the likes of Solyndra.)
According to President Obama, entitlements like Medicare and Social Security don’t merely represent a necessary safety net for the vulnerable. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great,” he maintained, in a highly imaginative interpretation of these programs.
In a clear slap at Republicans, Obama declared, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” This smacks of hypocrisy from a politician who gleefully mocked Mitt Romney in the general election and questions the motives of his opponents as a matter of routine. In Obama’s mind, though, there is no contradiction. As obstacles to the togetherness that defines America, Republicans are burdened with the taint of illegitimacy.
For all their obsession with the Founding, he is saying, it is they who represent a break with the American tradition. For all their accusations that he is a radical, it is they who are the extremists. He gives them the implicit choice of getting with his program or getting run over.
All of his bows to modesty were formalistic. He mentioned “outworn programs,” without even promising to eliminate any. He said we have always had a suspicion of central authority, but of course he didn’t endorse it. He said we don’t have to settle the debate over the size of government once and for all, while insisting that we keep expanding it on his terms.
All in all, it was a brazen performance, as audacious in intent as it was banal in its expression. He used the Founders’ authority to advance an expansive conception of American government that would have been unrecognizable to them. Amid the pomp and the circumstances, Republicans should have heard a direct challenge. The president did them, and everyone else, the favor of enunciating the battle lines and the stakes of the fights to come.