Barack Obama’s life is an open book—he wrote two autobiographies whose principal themes of constant self-renewal reinforce each other, the earlier book more philosophical and radical, the later book political and “pragmatic.” Both are equally honest accounts. Yet he continually surprises his allies, opponents, the media, and academia. With the notable exception of Charles Kesler (I Am the Change), his conservative and Republican detractors seem never to have paid his books serious heed. Obama is comparable to Abraham Lincoln in that observers constantly underestimate him. This is the context in which his Second Inaugural is to be read.
The speech’s sharp partisanship is immediately evident, though a conservative would have uttered many of its lines with pleasure (as with his 2004 Democratic convention speech). In this view, timidity, not excessive ambition, has undermined presidents in their second terms. What doesn’t destroy his second term will make him stronger.
Lincoln helps us understand the ambition that we’re dealing with. In his Perpetuation Address the young Lincoln, not even 29, warns his audience
Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.
Lincoln’s own ambition led him to restore the Constitution and the glory of George Washington—perpetuating the nation became his expression of “towering genius,” his source of fame.
Obama’s ambition is of a different sort, somewhat easier to execute than Lincoln’s. The object of his second term, and likely of his political career, is to do what eluded Franklin Roosevelt—to destroy the Republican Party and, more important, to delegitimize the conservative and libertarian beliefs and policies that it advanced. Obama’s address attacks the wellsprings of liberty and limited government in the political philosophy of the American founding.
Obama puts a personal twist on a patriotic tenet: “We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional—what makes us American—is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago….” He then quotes the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Obama projects himself, with his mixture of races and faiths and his atypical name, as the model of the American creed. (By contrast, Lincoln had noted the Germans and French in his audience who would be included in his reading of the Declaration.) To attack his view of the Declaration is to attack him personally—not a winning strategy. Obama is interested in perpetuation—how do we “continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” Throughout the address he relates the word with the deeds, as in the beginning of the Gospel of John, though he does not go as far as Roosevelt in his First Inaugural, comparing himself with Jesus driving out the moneychangers.
The major enemy is one whom his feckless liberal predecessor, Bill “the era of big government is over” Clinton, deferred to on too many issues—economic, social, and military. In his First Inaugural Ronald Reagan drew a line that even Obama had to acknowledge:
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?
Reagan’s democratic, constitutional government understanding of the Declaration is completely opposed to that of the Progressives and liberals who had transformed its meaning throughout the twentieth century.
Proceeding to attack, Obama draws from the classics of Democratic Party rhetoric, including Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 campaign address “What is Progress?” (an attack on the founding) and Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign and inaugural speeches. (I do not deny he has other leftist sources for his learning, but these suffice.) He is also well aware that the most effective partisan speeches are those that appear nonpartisan, as we see in Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural—of course we agree on the first principles of our government! Of course we may continue to disagree on some things. Though he declines to equate conservative Republicans with fascists (as FDR did in his 1944 State of the Union Address), he will use the bulk of his speech to imply they are to be as disdained as the traitorous “Tories” FDR ridiculed in 1932. Otherwise, we cannot continually make “ourselves anew.”
Three-fourths of the speech of about 2100 words is given to a series of false choices—in paragraphs beginning with “Together, we” or “We, the people.” Obama even revived his most notorious campaign bluntness of “you didn’t build that:” “No single person can … 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 purpose of these assertions is not to make arguments but to read dissidents out of the country, out of the company of respectable people—much as the Tories fled, the Federalists crumbled, the slaveholding regime was destroyed, and the moneychangers driven from the temple. Each time the victors revived the Declaration of Independence, or a compelling interpretation of it, to justify a new political arrangement. Obama sternly declares the enemies of the people to be out of touch if not downright unpatriotic—an elite party, discriminating in favor of a tiny portion of wealthy, favoring superstition over science, obsessed with guns, opposing women’s rights and health, and of course racist, bigoted, and behind the times. The rights the founders gave us imposed a duty to fight these latter-day traitors.
With each critical election the new ruling party prevailed for at least two generations. Obama proposes once again to bend the arc of history. “That is our generation’s task—to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.” The “values” come from our individual (and communal) wills; they are made up by us. The task is without end—in any sense. We live in a postmodern universe.
We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
The Declaration is now in “a spare Philadelphia hall!” History advances. But Obama needs to pull a punch at the end of his speech, when he compares as “not so different” the oath he takes as President with the oaths a soldier or immigrant takes—what is this Constitution that he swears to “preserve, protect and defend”? Like Lincoln, he will act against latter-day errant interpretations of the Constitution by a reactionary Supreme Court. Unlike Lincoln, for whom the Constitution meant self-government, limits on power, Obama will heed some “call of history.” He will be the prophet of that call.
At least one major political voice who views the Declaration differently was on the stage with Obama. He, more than any other national officeholder, has stood for a limited-government understanding of the Declaration together with the Constitution. Natural rights require that the principle of consent limits the powers of government. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, first appointed to the federal government by Reagan, and President Obama, together on Martin Luther King Day—a moving sight for those who believe that liberty’s greatest struggles are still ahead.