President Obama's second inaugural address enunciated a liberal governing philosophy scarcely expressed so clearly to start a presidential term since Franklin Roosevelt three quarters of a century ago. In doing so he sent a direct message to the Tea Party-animated right: that they do not have a monopoly on the Founding Fathers or their values.
Obama clearly drew from several sources of inspiration in his speech. He quoted Abraham Lincoln—the idea of "blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword" comes form Lincoln's second inaugural ("until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword")—and from Martin Luther King ("we cannot walk alone"). He echoed John F. Kennedy—Obama's "this generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience" and later description of "brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle," recalled JFK's "new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace"; and Obama's assertion that we are willing to negotiate with our adversaries "not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear" called to mind JFK's that "civility is not a sign of weakness … Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."
In terms of the overall message, however, Obama made an unapologetic case for progressivism that was deeply reminiscent of FDR's speech opening his second term. Coming off his sweeping 1936 re-election, Roosevelt spoke of "the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization." He went on: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." And he laid out a vision that would animate his party and dominate national politics for decades.
Obama doesn't have the governing mandate that Roosevelt had (though he did win comfortably in November) and so has less triumphal a tone than Roosevelt. His liberalism is updated to account for the Reagan era, from which, Obama hopes, we are finally emerging. "Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone," he said. But that qualification came in the context of a broader defense of activist government: "Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play," he said. "Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortunes."
He framed these realizations as being of a piece with the Founding Fathers' values, creed, and self-evident truths. In doing so, he directly engaged the Tea Party right, which often claims the exclusive mantel of our constitutionalism and our forefathers. "We have always understood," Obama said today, "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." And he didn't only use our founding values to advocate for government activism. Consider his statement that "that most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal" applies to women, blacks, and gays as they continue to seek to claim their equal status in American society.
Perhaps the most direct rebuke of the radical right's Ayn Rand-ian worldview came in Obama's defense of the social safety net. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security "do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us," Obama said. "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great." That's a direct shot at the view articulated by many prominent conservatives—Paul Ryan comes to mind—that we are increasingly a country of "makers" beset by parasitical "takers."
His admonishment that "we cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," was also a pretty clear shot across the bow of Tea Partyers who disavow the kind of compromise necessary for politics to work and manufacture showdowns (see the debt ceiling and the calls for a government shutdown) as a way to unilaterally force the sort of draconian budget cuts which voters rejected just a couple of months ago.
But along with the rest of the paragraph, where Obama acknowledges that "our work will be imperfect … [and] today's victories will only be partial" is also a pretty clear warning to those on the left who would make the perfect the enemy of the good.
How will history remember Obama's second inaugural? It's clearly better than his first. And if nothing else it will go down as the first inaugural in which a president embraced marriage equality for gays and put their struggle (Stonewall) on a par with the women's liberation movement (Seneca) and the battle for African-American civil rights (Selma).
Ultimately only the fullness of time will reveal where Obama's second inaugural address stands. It has the potential to rate very well, but much will depend on the next four years. If the president's "we the people" case for collective action proves a one-off with little rhetorical or political follow-through, his second inaugural will be as forgotten as his first. But if this speech is a clarion marking a turning point in the nation's governance, if it stands not as an isolated piece of presidential verbiage but as an address that set the tone for a successful second term, it will wear well over time.