January 21, 2013

President Obama used his inaugural address to make a case – a case for a progressive view of government, and a case for the particular things that government should do in our time.

He gave a speech in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural and Ronald Reagan’s first: Like both, Obama’s was unapologetic in offering an argument for his philosophical commitments and an explanation of the policies that naturally followed. Progressives will be looking back to this speech for many years, much as today’s progressives look back to FDR’s, and conservatives to Reagan’s.

Obama will be seen as combative in his direct refutation of certain conservative ideas, and it was especially good to see him argue — in a passage that rather pointedly alluded to Paul Ryan’s worldview — that social insurance programs encourage rather than discourage risk-taking and make us a more, not less, dynamic society. “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” he said. “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” This is one of the most important arguments liberals have made since FDR’s time, and in the face of an aggressive attack now on the very idea of a social insurance state, it was important that Obama make it again.

Yet the president pitched his case by basing it on a long, shared American tradition. He rooted his egalitarian commitments in the promises of our founding. The Declaration of Independence was the driving text– as it was for Martin Luther King, whom we also celebrated today, and as it was for Abraham Lincoln.

Obama’s refrain “We, the people” reminded us that “we” is the very first word of our Constitution and that a commitment to community and the common good is as American Washington, Adams and Jefferson. The passages invoking that phrase spoke of shared responsibility – “we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.” Obama said a powerful “no” to radical individualism (a point my colleague Greg Sargent made well earlier today in the course of a kind and generous reference to my book “Our Divided Political Heart”).

Some will no doubt think (and write) that Obama should have sought more lofty and non-partisan ground. The problem with this critique is that it asks Obama to speak as if the last four years had not happened. It asks him to abandon the arguments he has been making for nearly two years. It asks us to pretend that we do not have a great deal at stake in the large debate over government’s role that we have been having over an even longer period.

Neither Roosevelt nor Reagan gave in to such counsel of philosophical timidity, and both of their speeches are worth rereading in light of Obama’s.

“We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it,” Roosevelt declared. “[W]e recognized a deeper need—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. . . . We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”

“In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem,” Reagan said. “It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed. It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.”

Like these two presidents, Obama offered his fellow citizens the “why” behind what he thought and what he proposed to do — a point made to me after the speech by former Rep. Dave Obey. In my most recent column, I argued that Obama’s re-election (and the way he won it) had liberated him to be “more at ease declaring exactly what he is for and what he is seeking to achieve.” And that is exactly what he did in this speech.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”