The most striking feature of President Obama's inaugural address was the extent to which he talked about policy and contemporary issues. Most second term inaugurals find a way to remind listeners that "I won and they didn't." Obama's was somewhat more blunt in that respect. But only somewhat. Go back and read the Reagan inaugural of 1985.
Not surprisingly, people have tended to hear Obama saying things consistent with their ideological predispositions and hopes and fears.
Liberals were thrilled with his explicit references to gay rights and climate change. And there was more for liberals: equal gender pay; equal access to the ballot; immigration reform. Obama took a dig at conservatives who have called individual (but not corporate) beneficiaries of government programs "takers." Obama sought to reframe the debate by arguing that these programs enable us to take risks. Obama pledged to pursue sustainable energy sources, even though the path "will be long and sometimes difficult."
Conservatives have taken the speech as a pledge to defend and expand the status quo -- especially in terms of spending commitments for the big entitlement programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Obama, they complained, did not extend the hand of bipartisanship enough. In this respect as well, they might need to reread Reagan's 1985 inaugural.
It is certainly true that Obama repudiated the proposal of Reagan in 1985 that "we must act now to protect future generations from government's desire to spend its citizens' money and tax them into servitude when the bills come due." Indeed, Obama clearly wanted to frame an argument that government programs are legitimated by democratic choice and by their effects even if they require more taxes.
Pundits have argued that the speech reflects Obama's recent discovery that it is good to be confrontational. We are assured that he has learned not to offer compromise as part of a "grand bargain."
All of these claims perceive an extreme purpose and direction in Obama that is dubious. We know this from the history of Obama's behavior in his first term as well as from the language of the inaugural itself.
Throughout the speech, Obama sounded notes that could have come from the mouth of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Indeed those presidents did say very similar things. Conservatives should have found reassurance in those lines, but mostly did not. Here are important examples:
We have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character...
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher... our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American...
We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit...
We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law ... We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom...
The oath I have sworn before you today... was an oath to God and country, not party or faction.
With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.
All of this seems to me to reflect a familiar Obama. It reflects a man engaged in balancing. It reflects a man capable of making difficult choices that are likely to disappoint and frustrate some supporters. True, he wants his supporters to trust that he is facing the "right" direction. But this language and his past behavior indicate that Obama truly is ready to make "the hard choices."
When action comes on the issues he has enumerated, it will be wise to recall Obama's statement that "today's victories will be only partial."
And when he warns about mistaking absolutism for principle, or substituting spectacle for politics, or treating name-calling as reasoned debate, we should consider that Obama probably intends that to apply to those to his Left as well as his Right.
Obama concluded with a populist celebration of the voices of ordinary citizens. Some will object that he cast himself as the voice of "we, the people" on issues where the people are not always so clear.
Nonetheless, as citizens, Obama said, we have an obligation to shape our national debates and to lift our voices in defense of our values and ideals. This apparent repudiation of top-down democracy should resonate deeply with the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. Or, perhaps, we should notice that a somewhat less radical way to lift our voices has already been offered to us by the Obama Campaign -- something called Organizing for Action.