reading the inauguration

Last time, we were there. This time, the inauguration was a TV show for me and my family, but still full of interesting themes and messages.

The citizenship theme: In the third major speech in a row (his nomination speech in Charlotte, his election night remarks on Nov. 6, and yesterday at his inauguration), the President chose to conclude with a peroration about citizenship. Once again, it didn’t get much attention. The New York Times David Brooks’ thought that “Obama made his case beautifully” (overall), but “We still have one party that talks the language of government and one that talks the language of the market. We have no party that is comfortable with civil society …”

I’ve argued that the Obama-era Democratic Party does actually favor civil society. But the administration has not done much concretely and practically to encourage citizen action. That means that the president’s invocation of “we the people” can be overlooked as a cliché or reduced to a request to vote Democratic and then support an expanded state. For instance, The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta wrote,  “Obama invoked the power of those citizens, and while it is usually an unoriginal political trope to do so, the fact that his election and re-election were so dependent on turnout by those less connected to the political system made his phrases seem more authentic.” We are still waiting for a time when a president can invoke citizens’ power and be understood to mean more than voting or supporting progressive legislation.

The work theme: One vital aspect of citizenship is “public work,” or building the commonwealth together. That was a central theme in Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem:

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

All kinds of people work–doing work of all kinds. Their identities determine their work, whether they are blue-collar moms ringing up groceries or middle-aged professional  poets. Whether they work for pay or for free, for the government or for a business, they always work for themselves, for their children, and for the whole community. They are diverse but they build one common world.

I didn’t think Blanco’s contribution was exactly a poem; it was not a carefully constructed, richly allusive “well-wrought urn.” I thought it was more of a speech with irregular line-breaks. But that was appropriate for an inauguration–we couldn’t have absorbed a lyric poem. And, as a speech, Blanco’s complemented the President’s very nicely by offering a citizens’ perspective on the national efforts that Obama invoked.

The North and the South: The 2012 electoral map recalled the Civil War, with almost all of the Old Confederacy colored red, and virtually the whole Union, blue. At the Inaugural, Senator Schumer (of New York) invoked Lincoln’s decision to finish the Capitol dome under the eyes of confederate armies and recalled the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment. Then a Brooklyn choir sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A Southern senator (Lamar Alexander) made brief and gracious remarks, but otherwise, this was a Yankee show. The President did, however, invoke the man from Atlanta who spoke at the opposite end of the Mall–in authentically Southern cadences–50 years ago, saying, “This is the faith that I go back to the South with. … Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!”

The President’s argument: The Inaugural speech was an argument for activist government, rooting that idea in American history. One’s response will depend deeply on whether one trusts the president. Inevitably, an inaugural address glosses over tradeoffs and difficulties. That’s no problem if you like the speaker, but frustrating if you don’t. In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf decried Obama’s “audacity of fluff.” Obama said, for example, “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Friedersdorf replies:

It’s trivially true that no single person can train all the math teachers we need, or build all the research labs. But it hardly follows that we need to do all those things together, “as one nation, and one people.” Some of the math teachers can be trained by Jesuit institutions that secular Americans are uninclined to support. … . A great strength of America is the fact that we don’t have to do everything collectively, “as one nation, and one people.” Individuals and diverse groups work alone or in private collaboration to pursue their own notions of the good, and everyone benefits from their greatest achievements. … In a pluralistic nation, actually doing anything as one is either a vapid illusion or creeping fascism. Progressives feel that way when they’re told opposing a particular war is un-American.

In fact, Obama endorsed “skepticism of central authority.” He acknowledged two sides of the argument about liberty and community. But George W. Bush used to talk about compassion and human rights. For those of us who deeply distrusted that president, those rhetorical flourishes were infuriating. So I can see how someone who views Obama as casual about individual liberty would be offended by the speech.

And yet, it wasn’t vapid or self-evident. It was an argument for moderately progressive policies, as one can tell from the outraged responses on the right. E.g., Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post:

If there had been any doubt, the president’s second inaugural address did confirm he is a dogged collectivist with little appreciation for the dangers we face in the world.

After some overwritten references to the Founding Fathers he proclaimed that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Really? Economic prosperity may require it. The goal of economic equality may need it. Advancement in mass transit may demand it. But personal freedoms are obtained by limited government, the rule of law and a free market (relatively speaking) where one can achieve his aims and fulfill his personal goals. But this is not the America President Obama envisions.

If Rubin really does not see how an active government can enhance personal freedoms, then she is on the opposite side of a serious debate with the President. He thinks, for example, that it will be easier to start a small business once the Affordable Health Care Act helps you and your prospective employees with health insurance. The President might be wrong, but he was saying something.

Inauguration Day began for me with Paul Krugman’s column entitled “The Big Deal,” which is a positive appraisal of the first Obama administration. Krugman has been going after Obama since the 2007 primaries. I’ve written at least 18 blog posts countering his critique, albeit always with respect for his far superior grasp of economics. Krugman doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would write a favorable column just because it’s someone’s inauguration day. Rather, I think the books have closed on the first Obama term and the bottom line looks better than progressives thought after each specific episode. Krugman and other commentators to the President’s left are taking stock of the domestic achievements of the first four years, viewing them in a broader context, recognizing the obstacles, and concluding that Obama achieved more than any president has since 1970. That doesn’t mean that they will or should let up the pressure. Leadership, as FDR said, is deciding which pressure to cave to, and Obama needs a constant push from the left. But a just appraisal would place Obama squarely in the progressive tradition that he extolled in his Second Inaugural.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.