“A man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
It was not the words, but this transcendent reality that evoked the tears at Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday. The somber eloquence of the new president, the presence of over a million people celebrating what they had done, the grace of Michele and Barack together, the infectious delight of their daughters, the relief felt in the long overdue departure of Bush and Cheney—all were overshadowed by the historic reality of Americans electing the first African-American president to lead them in this time of trouble. We see one another and the world sees America with new eyes as a result.
But Obama’s speech should not be lost in that moment. Major presidential addresses are signposts, markers of an administration’s priorities and perspectives. Each phrase is contested; what is said and unsaid have meaning. Political allies, aides and adversaries parse the text to claim mandates or define battles. This will be particularly true for Obama, a gifted writer who takes words seriously.
Most analysis focused on the president’s somber warnings of “gathering clouds and raging storms,” two wars and a weakened economy. Conservatives took solace in his embrace of moral virtues, and martial rhetoric that “our nation is at war,” and promise to “defeat” our enemies. Others noted his call to service, a stark contrast to President Bush’s summons to the nation to “go shopping” after September 11.
But this distorts Obama’s message. The core of the speech was structured around a pointed critique of the “failed dogmas” of the last 30 years of conservative misrule, a sharp rebuke of the policies of his predecessor sitting nearby on the stage, and a summons to a new and bold era of progressive activism.
At home and abroad, the new president claimed a mandate for a dramatic change of course. Domestically, he dismissed the centerpiece of modern conservatism: its scorn for government and worship of markets. “The question… is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…” We know that the market has “the power to generate wealth,” but surely we have learned once more that “without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control.”
But he did not stop there. The test for a government that works is “whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.” This comes as close to the Franklin Roosevelt’s call for an Economic Bill of Rights that we’ve heard since FDR issued that promise in 1944.
And the measure of markets is not simply a larger GDP or growth, but benefits that are widely shared. “The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy” depends on “the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart, not out of charity, but because it is surest route to our common good.”
From these principles, Obama outlined his priorities. His recovery plan will be grounded on public investment in areas vital to our future—from bridges to electric grids. He’ll return science to its proper place, a slap at Bush’s ideological assault on science. He’ll launch a concerted drive for new energy—to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories” so we can reduce a dependence on oil that serves only to “strengthen our enemies and threaten our planet.” And finally, he pledges a transformation of “our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of the new age.”
As to national security, Obama begins by rejecting the “false choice between our safety and our ideals,” dismissing Bush’s use of September 11 to trample our constitution. He discards the bellicose unilateralism of the Bush neoconservatives, evoking earlier generations that knew “our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. … Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, and tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” He paints an America “ready to lead again” by rejoining the world, with a new respect for “sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.”
From these principles, he lays out his priorities. First, he will “responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan,” somewhat reassuring phrasing for those of us worried that the dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan could trap us in a costly occupation. He places priority on reducing the nuclear threat, and rolling back “the specter of a warming planet.”
Then after pledging the defeat of those who seek to terrorize us, he moves once more to seeking a “new era of peace,” beginning with offering the Muslim world a new way forward, based on “mutual interest and mutual respect,” watchwords for the Iranian leaders, among others. Rather than Bush’s pledge to spread democracy at the end of a smart bomb, Obama offers to extend a hand to those “who cling to power through corruption and dissent and the silencing of dissent” if “you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Also significant is what was left on the cutting room floor. There was no mention of raising the military budget, or reforming the military to expand its expeditionary forces. There was nothing about cutting back Social Security, Medicare or other parts of our social contract, the “grand bargain” that conservatives in both parties have been pushing for. Progressives looked in vain for words on reforming our unsustainable global economic posture, and the need to move from creating global markets for investors and multinationals to regulating them for the rest of us. Items marked urgent in his inbox—restructuring a banking system once more on the verge of collapse, and providing mortgage relief to millions facing foreclosure—received only the most oblique reference.
Events transform intention, as George Bush discovered when the collapse of Bear Sterns threatened to bring down the global economy. Movements force change that might otherwise never take place. No one speech defines the future. The fight over priorities and presidential attention has only begun.
But Obama used this speech to raise the bar. While the president understands how far we have come with the fact of his election, this journey is only beginning. He calls Americans to a new age of responsibility, a new commitment to service, to put aside petty and partisan politics to address the stark challenges we face.
But his “post-partisan politics” is not about moving to the center, finding the least common denominator, and splitting the difference. In his inaugural address, the new president boldly summoned us to construct a new era of reform on the ashes of the failed conservative policies of the last three decades, with its foundations grounded on a progressive belief in activist government, regulated markets and shared prosperity at home, and a foreign policy that reflects our values. Each of us is called to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.” It is a challenge that we cannot afford to ignore.
This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.