A Landmark Address
President Barack Obama did something truly remarkable this week; he gave a weighty and powerful inaugural address, a speech which most say was greater than his first. There have not been very many second inaugural addresses – only seventeen out of fifty-seven inaugurations. And most of the second-term speeches have been not worth remembering. The worst could be described as perfunctory. Obama, on the other hand, used his second address to re-state, to establish a theoretical justification for collective action taken by the citizens of the United States through their government for the sake of public justice. It was high time that someone do so.
It is fair to say that for many decades liberals in the U.S. have run from that title: “liberal.” Many in the Democratic Party, the group which carried the liberal banner for most of the twentieth century, have, in recent years, sounded more like the Republicans of the middle of the last century. Sometimes they have worked for big, structural solutions, but usually without recourse to an ideology, a rationale for their actions, they have behaved in office as “Republican lite.”
Obama, for instance, governed in his first term as a center/right President with policies and positions a bit more conservative than those of the Republican, Richard Nixon. Even his landmark achievement, the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) is a warmed-over version of an old Republican alternative to the truly progressive policy of a universal single-payer program.
A Progressive Interpretation
Yet, in this speech the President laid a uniquely U.S.-based foundation for future progressive action, his and that of those who will succeed him. To do so he went back, as Lincoln and others have done, not to the Constitution but to the Declaration of Independence. The first paragraph of the body of the Declaration begins:
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.
In the U.S. we know these first lines of the Declaration quite well: God gives us life, liberty and the opportunity to build good lives. (This is not precisely the biblical vision of God’s design for life in God’s creation but it is close. Indeed, without the Judaic-Christian tradition in which people are created good and intended by God to live well, the founders of the U.S. could not have gotten even that much right.) To the point here, these lines are used most often by libertarians to suggest that Government should be barred from exercising its authority and power in or over their lives – government, keep your hands off!
Obama, to his credit, considered – although he did not quote it aloud – the next point made in the Declaration, one we do not know as well, about governments being instituted, that is, brought into existence by people, specifically to secure those basic conditions of life for themselves:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
With this thought in mind, the President noticed that although God endowed people with life, liberty and the opportunity to pursue happiness, these circumstances are not themselves automatic. People have to band together to secure what God intended for them.
A Progressive Story
In that observation Mr. Obama advanced a specific progressive story: collective action, generation after generation, moving the nation forward, toward securing those conditions of life, liberty and a level playing field on which to seek happiness, not just for a king nor only for a few powerful people, for a wealthy, virtual aristocracy, nor only for the people who happily have and exercise those rights at any given moment; for all the people.
We know that most of the signers of that Declaration, noticeably, all men, owned or had owned slaves. Although it is most obvious to us, many of them did not see the implications of their own brave words for those others in the nation they were founding who at that time did not control their own lives, be they women or slaves or even poor white males.
It took future generations to extend the franchise to men who did not own property and in another generation, four score and seven years later, to extend those same rights to many more of the citizens of the nation. Again and again the rights of full citizenship have been extended and when life itself has changed so that those conditions were again threatened, the people have needed their government to broaden their understanding of those conditions, not to citizenship only but to the right to vote. And not to that alone but to push back against other threats to those conditions necessary for good life; and the circumstances that allow for liberty and to the level playing field which makes the pursuit of happiness possible for everyone.
Of Those Who Fall Through the Cracks
So today, if you have the vote and you are an unemployed contractor and your wife used to have a good job but she was cut and now works a low wage job which provides no health or dental care, what sort of life do you have and what can you do about it? What liberty? What chance do you have for the pursuit of happiness because you are fifty-eight, have a palsy which is getting worse (you do not know why) and your wife has dizzy spells and a lot of pain in her mouth but you cannot afford a doctor for either of you and you have not seen a dentist in… well, you cannot remember in how long… Maybe you can get some help with these things if you can just survive another six and a half years until you are eligible for Medicare.
Millions of citizens of the U.S. have stories just like this one. Some are white; some are persons of color; some are young and some are older. Some used to be a part of the middle class; some never were. And while we can tell ourselves the mythic Horatio Alger stories of the rare and favored few who have arisen out of negative circumstances, what about those many who do not have and often never have had the wherewithal to escape their shattered beginnings? What about all the people.
Time Really Will Tell
The story which President Obama advanced is the one which we can hope and maybe expect he plans to live out in his second term. That was certainly the point which he made in the rest of his speech, line after line, as he ticked off the areas in which he believes those basic conditions for life and freedom and a chance at happiness have not yet been secured for many persons who are now the residents or citizens of the United States of America. We will see in the next four years what if anything comes of this story-line during his tenure and whether he is able to live out of it in anything like the way he clearly hopes to do.
Lord, have mercy on our President and on all the members of our governments; federal, state and local. We need their good leadership even when we do not always think we want it. We need for those who hold these offices to learn and practice justice and mercy and to walk humbly with you. Teach us and them your ways again that we might understand how to use the good offices of our governments to secure for everyone the conditions which lead to just life, responsible liberty and the opportunity for each one to discover happiness, that we as a people might walk together in the ways of fruitfulness, generosity and peace. I pray in the name of the ruler of all the world, our savior and lord, King Jesus. Amen.
Next: the first of several posts on President Obama’s list of goals in our journey to extend life, liberty and a chance to pursue happiness to all the people.
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1 Back to Post For a transcript of the speech I searched on “Obama’s second inaugural address transcript” and got more copies of it than I knew what to do with.
2 Back to Post It is worth remembering that for most of two centuries once every twenty years, starting in 1841, the President died and his Vice President’s hasty inauguration was without pomp or circumstance. And many Presidents have had no second term.
3 Back to Post George Washington’s second speech was all of three sentences long, to wit; ‘here I am again; I’ll do my best; if I don’t you will get me for it.’