‘We are made for this moment’; Obama’s spirited defense of ‘collective action’

Updated
 

Watching President Obama deliver his second inaugural address, I was reminded once again that elections really do have consequences.

Four years ago at the same location, Obama invested a fair amount of time in making the case for an improved political process – one in which policymakers “proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” It was, he said in 2009, time to “set aside childish things.”

Today, the president seemed far less concerned with process and more concerned with results. Obama’s interest is not necessarily in improving our politics, but rather, in improving our commitments to justice, fairness, and opportunity.

Above all, the president’s second inaugural was a deeply progressive speech. If the 2009 address was a workmanlike appeal for cooperation and recovery, the 2013 speech was a demand for a stronger, safer society, which relies on collective action to guarantee we “give real meaning to our creed.”

“Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.

“Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

“Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

“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. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character. 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.”

This is more than compelling rhetoric; it’s a summary of contemporary liberalism. And for Obama, it’s a governing vision – we act “together” through government to protect liberty and make it possible for Americans to pursue happiness.

“For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people…. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.”

Acting alone, in other words, as purely self-interested actors, limits society’s potential.

How progressive was this speech? The first specific policy matter Obama brought up was combating climate change.

How progressive was this speech? The president offered a not-so-subtle rebuke to the ideology he defeated in last year’s election: “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

How progressive was this speech? Looking abroad, Obama said we “must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.”

How progressive was this speech? It was the first inaugural address to specifically support gay rights. Obama also told the nation, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

How progressive was this speech? The inaugural address also decried long voting lines, demanded immigration reform, and referenced the need to reduce gun violence.

If Obama’s speech today is indicative of how and where he intends to lead the nation over the next four years, there’s reason for optimism. The president could have pursued a more modest, narrow course, but he instead chose an ambitious defense of progressive ideals.

I quite liked it.

Update: When you watch the video, or read the transcript, note how he uses the phrase “We, The People” five times. This is a rhetorical device, obviously, but it’s more than just a reference to the Constitution’s preamble. It’s part of the larger theme on collective action.

Inauguration and Barack Obama

'We are made for this moment'; Obama's spirited defense of 'collective action'

Updated