In 1981, in his inaugural address within two minutes, Reagan had declared that government is not the solution, government is the problem. Today’s inaugural address was a rebuke to that entire idea.
The truth is that “that entire idea” of government being the problem not the solution was never actually a very powerful idea in practice, since under Reagan, and the two Republican presidents after him, government, and government debt, grew exponentially.
But the idea that government is the problem has lived on in the heads of conservatives like Charles Krauthammer and others who cherish the myth that America is a “center-right” country just waiting for another Reagan to baptize it anew in a bath of regressive radicalism.
The election last November, however, showed that Americans, at least a majority of them, have found—rediscovered really—another religion, and from America’s national pulpit Barack Obama offered them a liturgy that better reflects where we are as a country, as a people.
Strategically, he launched the central theme of his speech from a Reaganesque “skepticism of central authority,” saying that we have not “succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.” Upon the solid rock of historical American attributes, he rebuilt the idea that gave us the New Deal:
Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these 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.
Collective action. That phrase must still be ringing in the ears of the right this morning, especially those who thought candidate Obama’s assertion that “you didn’t build that” was a revealing slip-of-the-tongue that would be his downfall.
But a reelected President Obama refused to back down from the idea that collective action is required if we mean to keep the individual freedoms we have:
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.
“We are made for this moment, and we will seize it,” the President said, “so long as we seize it together.” And to demonstrate how this call to collective action—a call that is really as old as this republic—is a requirement to preserve individual freedom, he said,
We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
That little girl would know nothing of genuine individual liberty if she remained gripped by “the bleakest poverty.” Hope is a liberator. Hope that hard work will bring some degree of prosperity is a chain-breaking force. The calls for “smaller government,” of a shrinking vision of America, would almost guarantee that little girl a long night of un-American dreams, a life of despair.
We need “a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American,” said the President, which “will give real meaning to our creed.” And on that notion he reassures those who hear the voices of conservatives eager to balance our budget by cutting social insurance:
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. 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.
We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. 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.
Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are “commitments we make to each other.” They are part of the social contract that paradoxically makes this a free society, collective obligations that liberate individuals to enjoy at least a “basic measure of security and dignity.”
Invoking “the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal” and referencing “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” President Obama, again from his secular pulpit, called us to action:
That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.
The values we—liberals and conservatives—celebrate are diminished, they are far less noble, if they are not real to that “little girl born into the bleakest poverty.” And our task, the President said, is to make them real to her and not argue over the abstract:
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.
For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
Seen that way, seen as an ongoing and imperfect task to make our founding creed of human equality real to all, rather than an epic ideological war, our work seems less daunting, the future less foreboding. I can’t think of a better use for an inaugural address, here in our times, than that.
And if President Obama’s speech was also a devastating “rebuke” of Ronald Reagan’s mistaken idea that government is our problem, then all the better.