By ELvin Lim
Conservatives hate it; liberals love it. His Second Inaugural Address evinces Barack Obama coming into his own, projecting himself unvarnished and real before the world. No more elections for him, so also less politics. He is number 17 in the most exclusive club in America — presidents who get to serve a second term. Yes, there’s still the bonus of a legacy. But the legacy-desiring second-term president would just sit back and do no harm, rather than put himself out there for vociferous battles to come.
For better or for worse, Barack Obama believes that the constitutional compact from whence he derives the fullness of his authority gives him a responsibility. He believes that the framers of the Constitution “gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people. Entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.” But he did not mean that he was an originalist, or a “constitutional conservative.” Indeed, the very opposite is true. Obama believes that the “founding creed” is no less than this: “we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges.” Originalism means change, he is telling us.
This is a president no longer prepared to dally, or to punt on his liberal beliefs. “The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us,” he said. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he also proclaimed. In his mind, there is no need to coddle the political right anymore, and he believes that the truth as he tells it will set us free.
So unreserved was Obama’s conviction that he took the sacred line of modern conservatism, “We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still” and turned it into the most liberal of philosophies, that “our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” Obama never really had much of a stomach for unadulterated libertarianism; in his heart of hearts, this former community organizer is a communitarian. This is why he cited “We the People” five times in his address.
Call Obama liberal, or call him correct; the point is half the country does not agree, and there are tough wars to come. That Obama has been so uncharacteristically upfront about his intentions signals, though, his belief that the national political tide has turned. That on gay rights, immigration, and so forth, either because of his electoral mandate or the changing demographics of the country, he believes he holds the upper hand.
And however short his second-term “honeymoon,” I think he does. Had Obama not been re-elected, his first term might have been construed as a fluke; a bit of electoral charity from a guilt-ridden America willing to give a half-African-Anerican a chance to deliver at the White House. But Barack Obama was re-elected by a vote differential of 5 million. Only the most measly of partisan spirits will deride this victory, and deny Obama the honeymoon that he justly earned.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.