“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek,” candidate Barack Obama said in 2008. At the time, his comments came in for criticism: They were narcissistic; they were tautological; they didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But in the aftermath of Obama’s 2012 reelection and his second inaugural address, his 2008 remarks seem less a statement of self-absorption than one of prophecy. There is an Obama majority in American politics, symbolized by Monday’s throng on the Mall, whose existence is both the consequence of profound changes to our nation’s composition and values and the cause of changes yet to come.
That majority, as the president made clear in his remarks, would not exist but for Americans’ struggles to expand our foundational belief in the equality of all men. The drive to expand equality, he said in his speech’s most historically resonant line, “is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”
Our history, Obama argued, is one of adapting our ideals to a changing world. His speech (like recent books by Michael Lind and my Post colleague E.J. Dionne Jr.) reclaimed U.S. history from the misrepresentations of both constitutional originalists and libertarian fantasists. “Fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges,” the president said. “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.”
Having established that the moral and practical arc of U.S. history bends toward equality, Obama vowed to push his demands for equality still further — to ending the systemic underpayment of female workers; the voter suppression that compels some Americans, usually minorities, to wait hours to cast their votes; the deportations of immigrants who would otherwise help build the economy; and the laws that forbid gay Americans to marry.
As the president acknowledged, however, social equality is rising even as the relative economic equality that once defined American life has sharply and broadly receded. “Our country cannot succeed,” he said, “when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” For this, Obama prescribed revamping our taxes and reforming our schools, but these are by no means sufficient to transform our nation into one that, as the president put it, “rewards the effort and determination of every single American.” The waning of the middle class is, with climate change, the most vexing item on the president’s agenda and requires far-reaching solutions beyond any he laid out. U.S. workers must regain the power they once had to bargain for their wages, but that only begins the list of economic reforms that are as difficult to achieve as they are necessary to re-create an financially vibrant nation.
The president closed his speech by asking his supporters to join him to help “shape the debates of our time.” The biggest mistake Obama made when he took office was to effectively disband the organization of the millions of Americans who had worked for his election — for fear, in part, that it might upset members of Congress whose votes he would need for his policies. He wants no such unilateral political disarmament now; his operatives hope to keep his 2012 campaign’s volunteer army in the field for the legislative battles ahead. Obama’s legions have proven that they can win elections, and this matters a great deal more, the president has learned, than whatever trace elements of goodwill he may win by deferring to Congress.
The Obama Majority — its existence and mobilization — is what enabled the president to deliver so ideological an address. No such inaugural speech has been delivered since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, demanding the curtailment of government programs and secure in the knowledge that much of the white working class had shifted its allegiance away from the Democrats and supported his attack on the public sector and minority rights. On Monday, Obama, secure in the knowledge that the nation’s minorities had joined with other liberal constituencies to form a new governing coalition, voiced their demands to ensure equality and to preserve and expand the government’s efforts to meet the nation’s challenges. As he left the stage, he stopped and turned to marvel at the crowd, at the new American majority they represented. They were the ones he, and we, were waiting for.