Obama also pledged to protect entitlements from budget cuts and defend the vulnerable from a warming climate and gun violence in what amounted to a thematic preview of next month’s State of the Union address, which he will use to more fully detail his plans and approach.
Health-care programs for the elderly and the poor “do not make us a nation of takers,” Obama said, borrowing the pointed language used by GOP opponents in the last campaign.
“They free us to take risks that make this country great,” he said to applause.
Obama’s first address is a way to measure what he has managed to achieve and where he has fallen short. “Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed,” Obama said in 2009.
In the epilogue delivered Monday, Obama effectively accepted Washington’s enduring partisanship, something he once pledged to end. But he also warned that he would demand action on an agenda that few Republicans have been prepared to support.
He used the phrase “We, the people” — the opening words of the Constitution’s preamble — at least five times to make the case that the country agrees with his views of where the country should be heading.
“What the speech said to me was that a new kind of liberal government is back,” said Sean Wilentz, an American history professor at Princeton University, describing it as an extension of the limited activism that Bill Clinton began.
“It’s not that you are going to evade politics or change politics or fix politics,” Wilentz said. “You are going to change the country by being political.”
Obama was less specific about how he intends to reengage the world after more than a year preoccupied with his own reelection.
He told the audience that “a decade of war is now ending,” as he maps out a schedule to bring the last U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by the end of next year. He also made clear that he would not be rushed into another war, tacitly referring to a confrontation with Iran over its uranium-enrichment program.
Beyond the specifics of his agenda, there is a message that Obama, the former Harvard law student and community organizer, wants to leave with an increasingly skeptical American electorate before he leaves office. He began that lecture Monday, invoking the civil rights movement again to declare that “our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”
Citing the “unalienable rights” outlined in the Declaration of Independence, Obama said, “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.”
“That while freedom is a gift from God,” he continued, “it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”
His senior advisers say he will continue to talk about the value of civic engagement — in the service of his agenda and beyond — as a way to change the country throughout his last term.
“It is something that holds great meaning to him,” said one senior adviser, who requested anonymity to describe Obama’s plans. “He’s an organizer.”