Barack Obama's inauguration speech makes the case for Bigger Government - Spectator Blogs

21 January 2013

6:03 PM

21 January 2013

6:03 PM

I never quite know what to think about the whole Presidential inauguration thing. One the one hand there is always something stirring about being reminded of the sheer scale of the American experiment and something ennobling, even in tawdry times, about any refresher course in its greater hopes or expectations. On the other, well, there’s the sheer scale of the pomp and flummery that makes one nostalgic for the theme park simplicity of monarchy. The Cult of the Presidency needs no encouragement of the type it enjoyed today.

And so to Barack Obama’s speech. The best thing about it was that it was short. Alas, much of the rest of it appeared to have been produced by a standard Presidential Waffle & Platitude machine. Take the peroration, for instance:

Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright.  With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.

That scarcely rises to the level of boilerplate.

Nevertheless and despite such unfortunate lapses, this was a surprisingly political speech. Climate change was referenced on more than one occasion whereas it had been posted missing during the election campaign last year. The intention to do something may be clear; the President’s ability to actually pass a bill is open to some doubt. As Jonathan Chait says, House Republicans will determine the extent to which Obama’s agenda survives contact with Congressional reality.

Even so, you could see why comparisons with Ronald Reagan are not so far-fetched. It is not so much that Obama can deliver a decent speech (though he’s not as good a communicator as Reagan was) rather the manner in which he couches his argument. Obama, more than most politicians but rather like Reagan, talks in such a fashion that you suspect he finds it hard to believe that anyone could truly and honestly and decently disagree with him and certainly no intelligent or generous person could. The goodness of his ideas and his intentions is presumed; opposition to them must be predicated upon something sinister. Reagan could speak like this too and, like Obama, he made it seem as though there might be something disagreeable about disagreeing with the President.


Consider this passage:

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we 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.  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.  We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. 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.

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.  The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.  That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.  That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

Well, again, that’s a bigger, bolder brand of liberalism than we heard on the campaign trail. (Of course it’s hampered by some bad writing too: croplands?) By “hard choices” Obama also means you should agree with him.

That’s fine. But even as the President decries false choices he sets up a series of false choices himself. Who says America faces a choice between “caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future”? No-one.

Even so, this was a speech making the case – in measured, cod-dignified tones – for government. It was a speech restating the case for government not just as an unfortunate necessity but, rather, an essential guarantor of American ideas and protector of American liberties. It was, in other words, a speech that, in some respects, harked back to the 1980s, not the Clinton years.

And, naturally, lurking beneath the bonnet was the simplest message of all: I won and I’m going to do something with my victory. How much political capital the president has accrued and how long he can keep some of it in reserve are different questions for a fresh day but for today at least here was Obama making a case for interventionism at home as well as abroad. (Only someone with no sense of the meaning of the term “isolationist” can actually believe the 44th president is any kind of isolationist).

Despite all this, there is a sense in which much of Obama’s is already done. Major challenges lie ahead – most notably on the budget, immigration, securing his healthcare reforms, and, perhaps, climate change – but his most important achievement is already in the past. He won and then he won again. Unlike other presidents his importance lies in who he is, not what he does. That makes him an unusually personal president and may, I think, help explain the extremity of the reactions he provokes in the United States.

Obama will be remembered, above all, as the first black president. His presidency will be seen – fairly enough – as a kind of political rubicon that, once crossed, cannot be recrossed. I suspect the effects of this have yet to be fully felt or appreciated. But it also means that Obama could be a significant president – especially in terms of changing the culture – even if he never passed a bill of serious importance. Of course he aspires to rather more than that. Nothing less than refreshing mainstream liberalism for the modern age and, in the process, dominating his era just as completely as Ronald Reagan did his.

Perhaps the best – and most telling – line came early: “History tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.” Precisely. The government is here to help and those are not, at least not according to this president, terrifying words at all.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Good blog.

  • The Elderking

    Bigger government = bigger spending, tax and debt.

    More worryingly it also means more dependency, entitlement and sloth. Lessens, independence, competitiveness and entrepreneurialism.

    America is going the way of Europe…

  • Mike Barnes

    “The government is here to help and those are not, at least not according to this president, terrifying words at all.”

    They may be terrifying words to a millionaire, but to somebody who loses their home in a hurricane, or loses their job to the far east, or loses their health but has no insurance, the government is all they’ve got.

    In the worst recession for 80 years, they turned out in their droves and gave big government a decisive victory.

    Good for them.

    • Baron

      Following the example of the Bolsheviks, the East Europeans also relied on the government to help with everything when the Red Menace ruled. You’ve forgotten what happened to the constructs?

      And of course people will vote for whoever bribes them most, why shouldn’t they?

  • Baron

    Alex, not a bad summary at all.

    The messiah cannot but be remembered as the first black President, no escaping that. He will also be ‘honored’ with the adjective ‘divisive’. Whether the America that carries the day will be the one he represents – progressive, equality driven, big State – or the old traditional, freedom underpinned, go getting capitalism, still hangs in the balance, if only for the medium term. The Republicans edged by the tea party faithfull will see to it. In the long run, however, America has had her day of supremacy and glory under the sun. In the world where all things are relative, other races and nations are hungrier, and getting better at generating wealth, too. And that in the end is what matters.

    and this:

    The speech was coached in such general terms, stating the bleeding obvious that it could have been made by Romney or any other President in the past. Not once did he hint as to the means he wants deploy to crack the challenges ahead, not a mention of anything he would reject reaching for the vaguely stated ‘goals’. Just a heart warming platitudes like “We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few”. Has there ever been any President or any politician for that matter who believed freedom is only for the lucky in America?

  • Augustus

    And one of the payoffs to the Democratic Party is that demographics were the most decisive factor in these past elections. Obama is aware of the fact and that’s why he’s likely to push forward
    pro-immigration legislation. Millions of illegal immigrants will get their
    papers by the end of his term.

  • Roy

    Speaker Boehner might well look worried in the background, it will take all his guile and stratagem to rein in the galloping president.

    • CraigStrachan

      Boehner’s going to get trampled.

      • Roy

        Boehner along with other Republicans have every right to stick to their guns. Obama has not such an overwhelming majority to suggest any knuckling under should ever be contemplated. There is no doubt the pressure will be on, the gang of political thugs will certainly try a trampling technique, of which they excel in heaped abundance.

        • CraigStrachan

          Boehner will get trampled – if not by the White House, by his own backbenchers.

          • Roy

            Obama and his progressive encampment are the real enemy. They have no policy that will start to redeem America. The leader’s charger is galloping in circles. His real agenda is to set the foundation stone of American socialism. Europeans should be celebrating that they will have a new chum on the common trail of welfare dependency and an increase in lower rung voters who can be guaranteed to support big government.

  • CaediteEos

    Now let me make the case for a smaller government – money.

  • CraigStrachan

    “Of course it’s hampered by some bad writing too: croplands?”