An expansive case for progressive governance, grounded in language of Founding Fathers

Halfway through President Obama’s inaugural address, James Fallows tweeted: “I believe this is the most ‘progressive’ speech he’s ever given.”

I would take that a step further. Obama’s speech lacked signature lines and was more direct than soaring, 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. Obama made the case for still more progress in the arena of civil rights — and for expanded progressive governance to combat inequality and protect our “citizens” from economic harm — by grounding it directly in the nation’s founding values.

“The greatest progressive arguments throughout the country’s history have been rooted in the language of the Declaration of Independence,” Michael Waldman, who was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton, told me today. “This speech was really rooted in that tradition.”

In his famous 1936 “rendezvous with destiny” speech, Franklin Delano Roosevelt linked the founding battles against European tyranny to the need for government to fight the “economic royalists” of the moment who were encroaching on Americans’ economic freedom “in the marketplace.” Lyndon Johnson, on the eve of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, linked the battle to secure voting rights for African Americans directly to the founding struggle for freedom.

Today, Obama quoted extensively from the Declaration, and declared that it is our challenge to “bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” He then went on to make the case for robust government activism in the economy — precisely in order to preserve individual freedom, i.e., the ability to pursue happiness. He linked this to the need for more government investment in infrastructure and education. For rules designed to ensure fair market competition. For maintaining the social safety net (in the form of Social Security and Medicare, achieved by two great Democratic presidents). For the need for a greater push for equal pay for women and full equality for gay Americans (which Obama linked to the struggle for civil rights for African Americans by invoking Martin Luther King).

Obama tempered his communitarian language by claiming it is not incompatible with “skepticism of central authority,” but the clear statement of his governing philosophy, which he insisted is rooted in our founding principles, was unequivocal: “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

The tensions inherent in that juxtaposition are critical. Today Obama was effectively declaring victory in the great argument that has consumed us for the last four years. During the campaign Obama argued his vision of a judicious mix of individual and collective responsibility is more in keeping with our national identity than the GOP’s “you’re on your own” ethic. Republicans angrily rejected this characterization, but in truth, the GOP’s platform and rhetoric did reflect what E.J. Dionne has described as “radical individualism.” The public’s rejection of the GOP caricature of Obama’s vision — as wildly radical and out of step with American values — itself confirmed that the mainstream agrees with Obama’s argument that “collective action” is not incompatible with American ideals of freedom.

In this sense, Obama’s speech today was similar to Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981. Reagan used that speech to articulate the conservative philosophy of governance and to declare the country’s turn in that direction. Obama today made the case, implicitly, that the country has now thrown in its lot with progressive governance as he defined it. Unlike Reagan, who made that declaration in his first inaugural, Obama needed to get through a tumultuous first term before having the confidence to do the same. Obama had to deal with profound domestic crises and was often rendered over-cautious by a radicalized opposition that was determined to destroy him at all costs. “Sometimes he didn’t quite get the balance,” presidential historian Stephen Hess told me today. “It’s as if he is claiming the balance now.”

Today, Obama all but declared ideological victory. That was the hidden meaning of Obama’s frequent invocation of “we, the people” — he was effectively rooting his vision of the proper balance of individual and collective responsibility, and the need for the sort of collective action the right all-too-cavalierly denounces as tyranny, in their authority.

“This was the most philosophically clear of any of his major speeches, and one of the most expansively progressive Inaugural Addresses in decades,” Waldman told me. “And he rooted those arguments in the civic creed of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

Obviously talk is just that — talk. But Obama laid out an expansive philosophical blueprint today that liberals now have the opportunity to hold him to. All in all, a very promising first start to his second term.

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