President Barack Obama's second inaugural address
President Barack Obama delivers his second inaugural address. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

After taking the oath of office, President Obama on Monday attempted to re-lay the familiar intellectual foundations for active government. But his second inaugural speech left those foundations incomplete and unsteady.

Americans are not fully free, he argued, if they cannot take risks without risking all, absent the entitlement programs that protect against destitution. Medicare and Social Security, he said, strengthen America. The country, he continued, also cannot take on the many other challenges it faces without collective effort, pooling national resources. In a welcome departure from his first-term rhetoric, Obama promised high in his speech to “respond to climate change,” the sort of thing that requires investment in research labs developing new energy technologies. These arguments will resonate with anyone who accepts the wisdom of America’s mixed economy, mostly free but augmented when markets fail to achieve certain basic social goals.

Missing, though, was much acknowledgment of the other side of the coin — or, rather, coin of any sort. The president prefaced his vindication of Medicare by noting that health-care spending, a fraction of the federal commitment that is projected to go from astoundingly large to disastrously unsustainable, must be reined in. But he much more forcefully rejected the notion that there is a choice between caring for the old and seeing to other federal responsibilities. In fact, there will always be a tension, if not a choice, between spending on the elderly and investing in younger generations, and the balance right now is tilted heavily in favor of the elderly. Making sure Medicare does not crowd out spending on energy research and everything else the government should care about is essential to the sort of active government Obama proposed.

The penny-pinching instinct is critical when it comes time to spend on climate change, too. The government could easily throw billions upon billions into boondoggle energy projects — and, in fact, has already made a habit of doing so, from clean coal to corn ethanol, regardless of who’s in charge. Then there are policies designed to get maximum carbon cuts for the buck, if not to satisfy certain interest groups.

It is not enough merely to make the case for pooling and spending national resources. Progressivism requires unsentimental, hard-headed efficiency. It also requires creative approaches to applying these principles in the real world that policy affects. The task the president faces over the next four years is not merely maintaining the welfare state. It is, at long last, to rationalize federal commitments so the government does not take excessive amounts of money out of the private economy yet still has enough to deploy toward its many priorities. Obama needed to say more about that.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.