January 23, 2009 -- Presidential inauguration addresses are usually forgotten since it’s what the chief executive does after he’s sworn in that is of most importance to citizens.
But inaugural addresses can tell us something about what is to come in a president’s administration. That is why Barack Obama’s deserves some attention.
The most famous inaugural words in American history are literally chiseled in stone on the wall of the memorial to Obama’s favorite president. There you can read the eloquent words of Abraham Lincoln from his second inaugural address, where he declared the need “to bind up the nation's wounds” after the bloody Civil War “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” Tragically, his assassination left that task unfulfilled, and racial differences remained a stain on American politics and culture over the following century.
Trying to capture Lincoln’s spirit, Obama campaigned as a candidate to transcend our differences, to bind up our wounds, so to speak.
Perhaps, then, the rather generic pronouncements he gave in his inaugural address were meant to tamp down any polarization of the country and to unite us in the task of dealing with our economic crisis today.
Or his platitudes might have signaled something more ominous.
Trying to capture Lincoln’s spirit, Obama campaigned as a candidate to transcend our differences.
In his address Obama observed that “we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and nonbelievers.” Obama’s welcomed recognition of the growing secular community contrasts sharply with the 1987 statement of Bush Senior, who declared that “I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.”
Obama invoked many of the iconic virtues found in America’s people and history. He painted the picture of immigrants packing up their possessions to travel to America, of toiling workers, of patriots fighting at “Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy, and Khe Sanh.” Who wouldn’t cheer these achievements?
But he also maintained that those Americans “struggled and sacrificed … that we might live better lives” and claimed that “they saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions.” Really? So all those immigrants didn’t want to rise out of poverty for their own sake? They didn’t want to realize their own personal dreams but, rather, “worked till their hands were raw” for future generations unseen?
Obama took up an objection of many conservatives to the bailout of the auto industry—unsustainably high union wages. He endorsed the conservative sentiment and tried to sell it to the unions as a “virtue” when he lauded “the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job.”
And Obama proclaimed “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogma, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
No false promises? No worn-out dogmas? In this pronouncement he pushes the unity theme too far and reveals his not-so-surprising underlying agenda.
Obama said, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” This contrasts sharply with the bold proclamation in Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” -President Obama
But the real question is not of “big” or “small” but, rather, of the right role of government. A government limited to protecting the lives, liberty, and property of citizens will probably never grow too large lest it limit these individual rights. When Obama tells us that we should ask whether the government works, he means whether it “helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.” Sounds like a textbook case of false promises and a worn-out dogma. Doesn’t he understand that, as John Galt declared, he should just “get out of our way”?
Obama calls for “a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly….” Personal responsibility for ourselves is fine. But for Obama the duties we owe to the nation do not consist of respecting the equal freedom of other Americans so that they can take responsibility for their own lives. We are to sacrifice for others, to absolve others of their need for personal responsibility.
Obama says, “In the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” But the current federal government and types of policies he advocates are fine-tuned to transform morally healthy adults into sniveling children who are dependent on government. You can’t be expected to take responsibility for finding a job, raising your kids, and saving for medical emergencies and retirement. We, your friendly politicians, will do it for you; all it will take is the sacrifice of your fellows.
This is the absurdity under the surface of Obama’s seductive words. They might sound reasonable and balanced, but there is a clear path in which this rhetoric moves the country.
That path can best be seen in Obama’s statement: “Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, markets can spin out of control.”
Of course, the federal government does not simply “watch” individuals and businesses engaged in economic activity. It was the federal government, for example, that manipulated monetary policy and lending in the housing markets, helping to produce today’s economic crisis.
Obama praising the free market while calling for a “watchful eye” (that is, government regulation) is a call for making our current mixed economy even more “mixed,” that is to say, adding yet more government controls. In other words, the mixed economy is not an arrangement between complete economic liberty and complete government control. It is an arrangement that creates the political and economic incentives to demand even more federal dictates of our economic affairs.
Economic realities could restrain the kinds of policies backed by Obama and his political allies, policies that would further limit our freedom and take our money. And it is fair to keep a watchful eye on Obama’s actions as well as his words.
At least Obama’s election is an indication that racial differences could some day soon be relegated to the dustbin of history. And, as optimists, we might hope for the best in the economic realm. But as realists we must, like our Founders, be prepared to fight, especially with our ideas, for our individual lives, liberty, and property.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.