January 21, 2013

PRESIDENT OBAMA inaugurated his second term Monday with something approaching a liberal manifesto: a clear statement of what he hopes to accomplish over the next four years.

Mr. Obama’s second inaugural address was such a departure from the soaring generalities of some predecessors’ speeches that at times it sounded as though he were still running against Mitt Romney: when he hailed “the broad shoulders of a rising middle class,” for example, or when he rejected the notion that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security “make us a nation of takers.”

The president anchored his address in the language and aspirations of the Declaration of Independence, but for those who listened carefully he described a second-term agenda of unusual specificity for an inaugural address: immigration reform, including more visas for engineers; voting reform; gun control; preservation of the nation’s entitlement programs; investment in highways and other infrastructure; more worker training; equal pay for women; revamping the tax code to combat inequality; and more.

Facing up to the challenge of climate change received unusual and welcome prominence in the speech. So did the struggle for gay rights, which Mr. Obama placed in America’s long history of expanding freedom to women, blacks and beyond. Citing the pioneers of “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall,” the president declared: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”

Less welcome was the reappearance of one of Mr. Obama’s favorite rhetorical companions, the straw man. “No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need.” Mr. Obama declared, in a defense of his communitarian vision.

And: “[W]e 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.” The implication was that entitlement reform — essential to America’s fiscal health — means abandoning the older generation. In fact, the country can safeguard its most vulnerable elderly while investing in children — but not without restructuring Medicare and Social Security. Mr. Obama recommitted himself, as he has uncounted times, to making “hard choices” to reduce the deficit. But he again offered no clue as to what those might entail.

If that absence suggested a bit of wishful thinking, another sentence suggested a barrelful: “A decade of war is now ending,” Mr. Obama pronounced. That would come as news to the Afghan soldiers still dying at Taliban hands; to the families of more than 60,000 people killed in Syria in the past two years; to French soldiers who have taken on, in Mali, al-Qaeda affiliates who are as much enemies of the United States as of France; to the families of American hostages just slain in a terrorist attack in Algeria. America’s adversaries are not in retreat; they will be watching Mr. Obama in his second term to see if the same can be said of the United States.