In its tone and temper, Barack Obama’s inaugural address could not have been more traditional. Our challenges may be new, he declared, as are the means by which we must meet them. But the principles and virtues on which our success depends are old and true. He invoked liberty, equality, and opportunity, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play—values equally prized by liberals and conservatives. He cited tolerance and curiosity, more often embraced by liberals, and loyalty and patriotism, which some conservatives have claimed as their own. When it comes to American values, he implied, we are all liberals, we are all conservatives—or at least we ought to be. To the extent that we have strayed from our ancestral beliefs, we have paid a price, and we must now “return” to them. We need not reinvent ourselves, but only remember who we are when we are at our best.
Substantively, the speech was almost two different speeches. In domestic policy, the theme was transcending old differences. The new president boldly declared the end to an issue that has divided the political parties since the New Deal. The debate about the role of government, he claimed, is now irrelevant. If the thesis was Roosevelt and the antithesis Reagan, the synthesis is pragmatism. The question isn’t whether government is the problem or the solution, whether it is too big or too small, but whether it works. When it does, build on it; when it doesn’t, end it.
In foreign affairs, by contrast, Mr. Obama firmly took sides in the debate that has divided the country throughout his predecessor’s administration. “We reject as false,” he declared, “the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The implication was clear: he will repudiate and reverse security measures that many have criticized as breaches of our constitution and of the rule of law. He was equally emphatic in rejecting what many have taken to be the misguided thrust of his predecessors’ foreign policy and in calling for a return to America’s postwar traditions. “Earlier generations,” he pointedly observed, “faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” The message was clear: less reliance on force, more respect for the opinion of our friends and allies, more recognition of moral and legal restraints on the use of national power.
As he has done since the beginning of his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama demanded a change in the way the national government does the people’s business. He framed it as a call for political maturity. He invoked the Bible: the time has come to set aside childish things. He presented this, not just as an exhortation, but as a response to the felt needs of the people and our circumstances: “Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed.” And because that time has passed, we can raise our sights again and dream large dreams. On these grounds, he defended his ambitious plans against those who fear overloading and gridlocking the system. “What the cynics fail to understand,” he retorted confidently, is that “the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” As sixteen years of baby boomer presidents have come to an end, so too has the politics of the 1960s – or so the new president fervently hopes.
Toward the end of his speech, Mr. Obama did what aides had suggested he would. He called for a “new era of responsibility,” which he defined as a “recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world.” An intriguing feature of this theme is its dual critique of our recent political culture. Responsibility is a counterbalance to rights, the centerpiece of reform efforts—including the civil rights movement—for the past half century. At some point, rights without corresponding duties become an impediment to the common good, and the new president believes that we have reached that point. But responsibility is also the antithesis of irresponsibility, which he believes has characterized some leaders in both the public and private sectors, and to some extent the people as well. Accountability is the enemy of irresponsibility; we must hold our leaders accountable for performance and integrity, and we must ask the same of ourselves.
Much depends on Mr. Obama’s reading of the current moment. If he is right, the partisan, polarized, and often petty politics of recent decades can be made to yield to a higher, bolder politics of common purpose. If he is not—if the major parties remain divided on matters of principle and by memories of past quarrels, he may have to choose between accomplishments based on partisan majorities and a futile quest for common ground.
It is possible that not only our domestic politics but also the world may be less willing to accommodate his vision than he hopes. Our allies may yearn for a more cooperative America, but will they be willing to cooperate more with that America—for example, by sending more troops to Afghanistan and by relaxing restraints on their use? And despite Mr. Obama’s efforts at conciliation, our adversaries—Iran, North Korea, Hamas, among others—may spurn America’s outstretched hand, or meet it with a mailed fist.
But the president’s larger point lingers: given the sorry condition of our country and the world, it would be a dereliction of duty not to make every effort to forge fundamental change. There is a chance that he will fail. Still, the hopes of the nation, and of peoples everywhere, are with him.