In Obama’s 2nd inauguration speech, a strong defense of modern liberalism

Opinion

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President Obama used his second inaugural address to deliver a strong defense of modern liberalism, emphasizing the importance of programs like Social Security and Medicare, pledging to take on climate change in a second term and declaring that providing government assistance to low-income people “does not make us a nation of takers.”

While the president did not use the words “Republicans” or even “Congress,” his speech was a strong defense of the Democratic vision of using government to ensure equality of opportunity and included almost no nods to meeting his political opposition in the middle.

“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great,” he said.

The speech, like most inaugural addresses, was not heavy on policy specifics. Obama aides have said he will use next month’s State of the Union address to delve into more details on key issues.

At the same time, the president highlighted immigration reform, defending the rights of gay Americans, making sure Americans don’t have to wait in long lines to vote as they did in November and passing climate change legislation, all major Democratic Party priorities. His use of the word “gay” was the first ever by a president in an inaugural address, according to the New York Times. He pointedly promised, “We will respond to the threat of climate change,” likely reassuring liberals who have doubted his commitment on the issue.

“Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” the president said.

But more striking than his words on specific causes was his broader tone. Obama has long vacillated between more liberal and moderate instincts on policy, but his words on Monday were unmistakably to the political left with strong populist undertones. His comment about a nation of takers was clearly a blast at Republicans, including former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who infamously suggested during the campaign 47 percent of Americans were effectively reliant on the government because they don’t pay income taxes.

“We the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” he said. ” We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

At the same time, his rhetoric, if less optimistic than four years ago, still sounded like the Barack Obama who arrived on the political scene back in 2004 with a message of unity. He repeatedly argued America must come together to solve major problems.

“No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or 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,” he said.

The address also acknowledged the history of an inauguration that fell on the holiday for Martin Luther King. Jr..

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth,” he said.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @PerryBaconJr.