Let the Sunstein In

FDRWatershed election presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt do not simply happen on election day. The significance of the election is played out in speeches that illuminate and in policy that transforms. Whether President Obama is a critical election president is yet to be determined, but his references to the Declaration and the Constitution in his second inaugural address make clear his ambition to change our understanding of who we are as a people.

Does it come as a surprise that we have been living under a new Constitution anyway, a “Second Bill of Rights” that has devoured the original document? According to Harvard Law professor and former high-ranking Obama Administration official Cass Sunstein, it’s like discovering we’ve been speaking prose all our lives. In a recent op-ed Sunstein accurately observes that President Obama’s Second Inaugural (not to mention his major actions) faithfully follows Franklin Roosevelt, who first called for a “Second Bill of Rights” in his 1944 State of the Union Address.

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President Obama—Man of Words

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.

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