There was much to take from President Obama's inaugural speech yesterday. The President spoke broadly on a wide range of topics that included gay rights and the ending of a decade of war. But the major theme was that of collectivism and the defense of the welfare state. It was a direct and bold repudiation of the Ronald Reagan free market era, and Obama outlined a major shift away from bipartisanship and collaboration to outright conflict with the Republican Party.
Make no mistake about it, this was an important speech. There was little actual substance to the 20 minute performance, but that wasn't the point. Obama spoke in broad, philosophical terms seeking to define his second term as a call to arms to defend liberalism and the notion of The Great Society. The President wasted no time in going on the offense, and within the first minute of the speech set forth his argument that government had a duty to share the wealth amongst its citizens. "The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob," said Obama. "They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed."
As Obama continued, the attacks on individualism became more pointed. "Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers," he said. "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."
In the past, Democrats have been afraid to defend liberalism and have allowed the Republicans to define the ideological debate on their terms. Obama's first term was in part characterized by his willingness to engage with the Republicans on their ground, making negotiations a one sided affair and progress on policy painfully slow. His first inaugural speech was a call for bipartisanship and an era of collaboration. His second inaugural speech was delivered to change that dynamic - to let the Republicans know that he would no longer seek their approval. Going forward, Democrats will defend their values and fight the Republicans on their terms.
"We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action," said the President.
"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."
Speaking almost angrily at times, Obama seemed to be venting his frustration with the Right, scolding them for their philosophy that idolizes the wealthy and demonizes the poor. "The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us," said Obama.
And in a remark designed especially for his former adversary Mitt Romney, he said: "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
Political speeches - at least the good ones, have the power to shift the collective conscience of the public, and Obama's speech yesterday most likely did that. The most important weapon Obama has going forward is his ability to frame the debate before it happens. Republicans in Congress will continue to block pretty much everything the President attempts to do, but they will be hamstrung if the public turns against them and will have a very hard time maintaining their control of the House in the upcoming mid terms. If Obama can continue to shift the debate to the Left, he will force the Republicans to cede more and more on a policy level. We saw this happen during the fiscal cliff negotiations where Obama essentially told the American public "Republicans are willing to burn the economy down to get their way, and if it all goes wrong, it's their fault". And it worked. John Boehner was forced to move from his rigid ideological position and give up on the GOP pledge of never raising taxes.
From listening to Obama's speech, not just the words, but the tone of it, it seems clear he intends to take this tactic to the extreme in his second term. There is little chance that Obama will get his way on everything he wants. American politics doesn't work that way, as he found out during his first term. While Obama had success on many fronts (health care, financial regulation and the environment to name a few), he was mercilessly attacked by Republicans who seemed incensed that a black man was in the White House with a liberal agenda. Obama played nice, got what he could passed, and most importantly got himself re-elected. Given he doesn't have to worry about re-election in 2016, it looks like he won't be anywhere near as accommodating this time around.
Deregulated capitalism and the growing power of corporations present perhaps the most dangerous challenge to the success of America and all of its people, and Obama laid out his commitment to using government to balance the playing field and protect the vulnerable. We of course don't know how it will play out over the next four years, but with his inaugural speech, the President is off to a mighty fine start.