The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A speech that shows how Obama has changed

In 2009, Barack Obama came to change Washington. Today's speech showed how much Washington has changed him.

Obama's first presidential campaign, and his first inaugural address, were about moving America past our old arguments. His second presidential campaign, and his second inaugural address, were about winning those arguments. It's in the space between those two projects that the triumphs, disappointments and lessons of the first term live, and where the project of Obama's second term reveals itself.

Perhaps the most quoted passage in "The Audacity of Hope," the 2006 book that served as the ur-text for Obama's unexpected presidential campaign, was a section in which Obama dismissed the arguments of the Clinton years as "the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.”

In "Goodbye to All That," his influential 2007 profile of Obama, Andrew Sullivan picked up on that theme. "If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man," he wrote.

During his first inaugural address, delivered on a bitterly cold day in January 2009, Obama promised his presidency would make good on those hopes. "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics," he said. "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."

Obama's first term was, by any measure, incredibly productive. He passed health-care reform and the Dodd-Frank financial regulations. He ended the war in Iraq and gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden. He bailed out the banks and passed well over a trillion dollars in stimulus. But he did not end the petty grievances and worn-out dogmas that strangle our politics. These debates were not, as it turned out, childish things that would look small in light of our current problems. They were fault lines running beneath our politics, and they grew larger and more dangerous throughout Obama's first term.

Obama's reelection campaign, and his second inaugural address, was founded on a very different premise: The old arguments were indeed strangling our politics, and the only way to move past them is to win them, and the only way to win them is to fight over them.

His speech today fit firmly in that project. He retold the story of American history in a way that emphasized the project of collective action and liberal governance. "Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers," he said. "Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune."

And he painted a picture of America that is again discovering that it has severe problems that it can only solve through government action. If there was a core to the speech, it was these two sentences: "The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

Inaugural speeches are not typically the venue where presidents lay out detailed policy agendas. That comes a few weeks later, at the State of the Union. But Obama did offer hints today.

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. " he promised.

"We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class," he said, referencing his administration's ongoing belief that the government must do more to combat inequality.

"We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else," he said, in a line that added weight to rumors that the Obama administration is considering a push on early childhood education.

He agreed that "we must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit," but cautioned that, in doing so, his administration will "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."

He was explicit in his mentions of "our gay brothers and sisters" and emphatic that "our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts."

This was not a speech that assumed that the disagreements that split our politics are based on the psychodramas of the past nor that they will fall easily before the onslaught of the future. But it was a speech, more so than most Obama has offered, that signaled his intention to join the battle of ideas, to use his bully pulpit to make an aggressive and uncompromising case for why his side is right, and to not rest until the American people agree that the other side is wrong.

In his first term, Obama changed policy. In his second, he wants to change minds.