Yuval Levin @ The Corner:
President Obama’s second inaugural address was an exceptionally coherent and deeply revealing speech. Its cogency was impressive: Recent inaugurals, and especially those of reelected presidents, have inclined toward the laundry list far more than this speech did. Obama made an argument, and one that holds together and advances a discernible worldview. It was in that sense a very successful speech, and while it may not be memorable in the sense of containing lines so eloquent or striking that they will always be associated with this moment and this president, it is a speech that will repay future re-reading because it lays out an important strand of American political thought rather clearly.
This speech was about as compact yet comprehensive an example of the contemporary progressive vision as we’re likely to get from a politician. It had all the usual elements. Its point of origin was a familiar distorted historical narrative of the founding — half of Jefferson and none of Madison — setting us off on a utopian “journey” in the course of which the founding vision is transformed into its opposite in response to changing circumstances, with life becoming choice, liberty becoming security, and the pursuit of happiness transmuted into a collective effort to guarantee that everyone has choice and security. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence are praised mostly for their flexibility in the face of their own anachronism, as their early embodiment in a political order (that is, the Constitution) proves inadequate to a changing world and must be gradually but thoroughly replaced by an open-ended commitment to meeting social objectives through state action.
The only alternative to state action, in this vision of things, is the preposterously insufficient prospect of individual 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,” the president said.
No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.
The individual acting alone or the entire nation acting through its government, those are the only options we have. The space between the individual and the state is understood to be empty at best, and at worst to be filled with dreadful vestiges of intolerance and backwardness that must be cleared out to enable the pursuit of justice.
Our history is more or less a tale of an increasing public awareness of these facts. As we grew to understand that only common public action would suffice in an ever-changing world:
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
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.
That modern economy and that free market are simply constants to be taken for granted — they will keep on humming, the only question is whether they will be placed under any restraints or direction. “Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character,” the president said, so we need not worry about how to sustain them but only about how to contain them.