President Obama’s Inaugural Address and the Meaning of Progressivism

Barack Obama Sworn In As U.S. President For A Second Term

Winning Progressive is occasionally asked how we define progressivism.  In response, we typically say that progressivism is the belief that we will all be better off if we use the tools of government to advance important individual and societal goals that individuals cannot reasonably achieve on their own and/or that the free market will not provide.  From now on, however, we will likely just refer people who ask us about what progressivism means to President Obama’s second Inaugural Address that he presented yesterday in Washington DC.

The speech touched on a number of important progressive policy priorities – marriage equality, preserving Medicare and Social Security, addressing climate change, protecting the right to vote, etc. – in ways that were reassuring and, at times, surprisingly vigorous for an Inaugural Address.  For example, given the historic and lingering tension between some in the Civil Rights movement and the movement for LGBT equality, President Obama’s inclusion of Stonewall in the same list as Selma and Seneca Falls was music to our progressive ears.

But far more important than the litany of causes that, far too often, are the beginning and end of any discussion of progressivism, President Obama’s speech placed those causes in a context that defined and defended progressivism as an overall ideal that we should work to achieve.  In doing so, our President offered one of the strongest arguments in favor of progressivism presented on a national platform since Mario Cuomo’s keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

Obama’s speech started with a point that goes to the core of what motivates progressivism, by explaining that while the truths and values that our nation was founded upon “may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.”  In other words, goals like equality, economic opportunity, civil liberties, etc. do not just occur.  Instead, they require people to come together and work to enshrine such values in our laws and policies, to defend such values from attack, and to constantly expand the circle of people who benefit from such values.  And, as the President explained with a series of examples, we are all better off when we work together to achieve those values:

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

Next, President Obama’s speech turned to highlighting the three core values that progressive work so hard to enshrine, expand, and defend – economic opportunity, economic security, and social equality – and explaining how we are all better off when our society implements those values.

With regards to economic opportunity, President Obama explained that:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. 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.

As for economic security, President Obama reaffirmed that:

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

And with regards to social equality, our President stated that:

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; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth

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. 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. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

President Obama then emphasized another core element of progressivism, which is a recognition that progressive change happens incrementally and requires constant vigilance, stating:

We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, President Obama implicitly acknowledged that progressivism is not a top-down movement that can simply count on a leader to achieve victories but, instead, requires all of us to get involved in the long and hard, but ultimately rewarding, task of achieving progress:

You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.

You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama set down an important marker by offering a full-throated defense of progressivism and by laying out the progressive values and policies he would like to advance over the next four years.  Now, it is up to all of us to create the political will to allow President Obama to achieve those goals and, if necessary, the pressure to get our President to stick with those goals if he begins to waiver.

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