Hardly a liberal call to arms, Obama’s second inaugural was a conservative speech that touched on universal, almost inarguable themes that recast the traditional American dream in a modern context — and that could easily have been delivered by a GOP president — past, present or future.
Starting off with a nod to the Declaration of Independence — and a tone that was pure benediction and contained no condemnation — Obama affirmed that “what makes us Americans is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — before reminding that those same truths have “never been self-executing” and admonishing that although “freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.”
Obama moved on to say that “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own” — ratifying the oft-stated Republican credo of equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.
At the only point when he mentioned government programs by name — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — Obama explained his view that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. It’s a point that’s sure to be contested in the halls of Congress, but one that starts with the advanced capitalist case for social spending — not as a hammock, but as a safety net that frees us “to take the risks that make this country great.”
Then he expressed his intention to “try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully” — a prerogative he’s more than earned as the Commander-in-Chief who doubled down in Afghanistan, toppled Muammar Qaddafi and finally hunted down Osama bin Laden.
And concluding with his most memorable line linking “Seneca Falls to Stonewall to Selma” Obama consecrated a principle that seemingly no conservative would want to argue with: that all — not just some — Americans have equal rights. And by linking what can only be described as the tea party moments of the women’s, gay and lesbian, and black civil rights movements, the president found his own way to say that “he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”
Yes, I suppose you could hear all of this as a liberal love letter, which Slate’s John Dickerson categorized as “partisan” and evocatively described as “the song of America’s civil rights progress.” But if civil rights progress is the exclusive province of liberals, then it’s a pretty damning indictment of today’s conservatism.
A nod to the nation’s founding principles, a pledge to seek peace and the public recognition by the leader of the free world of the struggle of women, gays and lesbians and people of color for equality should be considered bipartisan, at least. As former House Speaker and 2012 Republican presidential also-ran Newt Gingrich noted, it was “classically American, emphasizing hard work, emphasizing self-reliance, emphasizing doing things together.”
And if that message is taken as the opposite of conservative — even on Inauguration Day 2013—then conservatism is in worse shape than we thought.
Swerdlick is a contributing editor to You can follow him on Twitter @Swerdlick.