Barack Obama’s first inaugural address was a high-minded paean to a better politics — “an end to the petty grievances and false promises.” His second was given over almost entirely to ends rather than means. And the analysis it contained struck a distinctly more combative tone.
The president dwelled at length on the founding vision of the United States — an idea that has animated the opposition, from right-wing protestors in colonial garb to conservatives claiming the Constitution as theirs. Again and again, and in pointed contrast to the tea party interpretation, Obama painted the animating principles of the United States as not merely limited government but a balance between freedom from government and the need for an effective government. “The patriots of 1776,” he said, “did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.” He asserted that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
Obama’s embrace of the progressive vision moved from the philosophical to the specific. He praised the role of income security programs (and assailed the Randian vision of the Republican Party), arguing that such programs “do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” He pledged to address climate change, and he included gay rights firmly in the civil rights pantheon that has been woven into the national historic fabric.
At the end of the speech, Obama attempted to reconcile the lofty principles of his rhetoric with the grimy realities of politics. He concluded the speech with a Lincoln-esque (the movie, not the president) paean to compromise: “We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
The Obama who begins his second term is much more acutely aware that the opposing party rejects, at the most philosophical level, the definition of the good that he has put forward as the national creed. Four years ago he expressed a jaunty confidence that the differences must be bridged. Today he committed himself to the same goal, but with a wariness borne of harsh experience.