President Obama’s second inaugural address won’t be remembered for stirring lines, but then its purpose seemed to be more political than inspirational. Mr. Obama was laying down a marker that he has no intention of letting debt or deficits or lagging economic growth slow his plans for activist, expansive government.
Inaugurals usually include calls for national unity and appeals to our founding principles, which is part of their charm. With the election long over, swearing in a President is a moment for celebrating larger national purposes. But Mr. Obama’s speech was notable for invoking the founding principles less to unify than to justify what he called “collective action.” The President borrowed the Constitution’s opening words of “we the people” numerous times, but his main theme was that the people are fundamentally defined through government action, and his government is here to help you.
On that theme, the speech was especially striking for including a specific defense of the federal entitlement programs that everyone knows must be reformed. Mr. Obama cited “Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security” by name as “the commitments we make to each other.” Typically, such programmatic specificity is reserved for State of the Union speeches. Mr. Obama almost seemed to be elevating them to Constitutional rights.
Typically, too, inaugural addresses avoid overt partisanship. But after mentioning those entitlements by name, Mr. Obama couldn’t resist saying that those programs “do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
The “takers” line was a clear shot at Mitt Romney’s most famous campaign gaffe. This should have been beneath a Presidential inaugural, but then again it fits Mr. Obama’s post- re-election pattern of continuing to demean and stigmatize those who disagree with him as if the election campaign is still on.
If you think this characterization is unfair, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer expressed the current mood in the West Wing this way to the Washington Post on Inauguration Day: “There’s a moment of opportunity now that’s important. . . . What’s frustrating is that we don’t have a political system or an opposition party worthy of the opportunity.”
So neither the checks and balances of U.S. democracy nor the Republican Party that controls one branch of Congress is worthy of President Obama’s grand aspirations. Presumably they must bow to his superior moral purposes. It’s important to appreciate how much such contemptuous talk deviates from normal public White House respect for the men and women a President must do political business with.