WASHINGTON — No doubt anymore where President Barack Obama wants America, and history, to place him: As a tough-minded liberal.
Forget the cautious moderation that often marked his first term and frustrated his most liberal supporters. His second inaugural struck a resolute, even combative tone as Obama positioned himself as a 21st century champion of the disadvantaged, a modern-day heir to the Progressive Era.
The speech marked the culmination of a theme Obama started claiming more than a year ago with a speech in the same Kansas town where Theodore Roosevelt a century ago laid out his vision for a new nationalism of government as protector of the poor and working class against the rich and powerful.
Then, it was helping the people survive the sharp edges of the Industrial Revolution at the hands of what Roosevelt once called the “malefactors of great wealth.” Monday, it was promising a government that would help people make it through an age of rapid social and economic change at the start of this new century.
For a middle class that’s been losing ground for a decade, he promised new policies. For gays emerging from the shadows of society, he promised recognition and rights, the first president ever to use the word “gay” in an inaugural address. For immigrants who snuck into the country without documentation, he offered the promise of a new policy.
“We the people,” Obama said Monday, “understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
He challenged the country to set aside the politics of confrontation in search of progress toward great challenges. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” he said. “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
He also used the speech to forge a bond with the country, signaling that he speaks for and with the people, more than individual members of Congress. He used the phrase “we the people” five times. He used the word “we” more than 60 times.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama vowed.
“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,” Obama declared, invoking touchstones of the drives for women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights.
Whether the address will reverberate and translate into policy and better relations is questionable. While the rhetoric was more pointed than usual, Obama was using the address to achieve what second inaugural addresses traditionally aim to do: help craft the legacy and give his causes a boost.
Obama tried to mold that legacy with a reminder, in terms unusually vivid for an inaugural address, of how his political rainbow coalition must endure.
“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” he said. “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.”
But the occasionally defiant and often political tenor of his remarks could prove risky. Obama still has to face a Republican Party that controls the House of Representatives and has enough votes to block most Senate legislation.
And he starts his second term with no honeymoon period. Though Obama won re-election with 51.1 percent of the popular vote, his latest Gallup approval rating was 50 percent, meaning his coalition is intact but not growing. Large numbers of Americans remain uneasy about their economic futures.
Chances are the Monday address won’t change Washington, at least not immediately.
Obama bet that by crafting an image as a dogged progressive, Republicans will know he’s ready to fight. The tea party, death panels, more taxes, none of that scares me, he signaled. I’ll be reasonable, he promised, but I’ll be firm.
Whether he can maintain the tough-guy persona will be crucial to his presidency. Obama is the sixth lame duck elected since the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, imposed a two-term limit on presidents and instantly weakened them.
The lame ducks’ terms were often defined by threats not on the Inauguration Day radar. Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed in 1957 “in our nation, work and wealth abound.” Seven months later, the economy tumbled into a recession. Bill Clinton faced impeachment, and George W. Bush’s second administration confronted the worst recession since the 1930s.
“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course,” Obama insisted. Strong stuff, but history often says otherwise.