The premise of Barack Obama’s inaugural address on Monday was that the Constitution contains valuable principles, but that we must “bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” Perhaps ironically, it also emphasized the need for collective action and stressed the “capacity for reinvention” as one of America’s greatest strengths. In his attempt to address his critics and merge his views with their values, however, he misrepresented key facets of their ideologies.
The speech contained many of the standard statements of Obama’s campaign, such as comparing government-built roads and infrastructure to government-run healthcare, saying that welfare is necessary for people with short-term problems (without acknowledging the significant problems of long-term welfare both for the economy and the individual receiving welfare), that “our outworn social programs are inadequate to the needs of our time,” and calling simultaneously for “immediate action” and “reasoned debate.”
Obama also made other noteworthy and points skewing or misrepresenting debates with his opponents, or prompting new debates, including:
- “The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.” The implication of this statement and others like it was that Republican ideology accepts the presence of one or the other, with liberal, progressive or Democrat ideas the only effective means to counter this. Conservatives and libertarians would argue that precisely the opposite is true.
- “Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.” This statement diminishes the status of initiative and enterprise, which are opportunities afforded to Americans by Constitutional government, to mere facets of the American character. The implication of this is not only that this collective character somehow separates America from the rest of the world, but that it will remain regardless of what the American government does.
- “For we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action...Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.” Collectivism was a consistent theme throughout the speech, being repeatedly pointed to as the only way to preserve individual liberty, to create a moral society, the logical extension of what the Founding Fathers would have wanted, and the path to “happiness” in American society.
- “For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future. Or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.” As part of his call for collectivism, Obama’s speech distorted the image of the individual, indicating that it meant people acting completely alone and solely for their own self interest. This view discounts the presence of companies, both large corporations and small mom and pop shops, which are perfect examples of individuals working together to accomplish goals in a mutually beneficial manner without government intervention. He also failed to take into consideration private charity which provides so much help to those in need. Individualism is not one person working alone to achieve an impossible task; it is people working together on their own terms, rather than by the dictates of a government. Furthermore, Republicans do not believe that the militia should replace the military (in fact it is Republicans who emphasize the need for a strong military).
- “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.” This statement applies morally charged beliefs to a group of people who hold no such ideas. Differences in the methodology for solving a problem should not lead to accusations of differences in levels of caring or compassion.
- “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.” A point often made to highlight the moral superiority of the Democrat party, Obama again misunderstood his opponents. Though few Republicans seek to dismantle Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the central problem with excessive spending and reliance on social programs is not that it “make us a nation of takers.” It is the forcing of unwilling people into the position of being dependent and subsequent control of their lives with financial regulations.
- “Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness.” This statement came in the middle of a segment of his speech pushing for immediate (though admittedly “imperfect” and even “incomplete”) action on gun control. Removing the rights of a person to own something they see as necessary to their own security and happiness cannot be seen as “liberty” under any definition.
Obama’s speech was an ode to collectivism while quoting the founding fathers and documents. It was partisan while claiming to speak for the identity of the American. Quoting the Preamble does not make a speech inspirational or automatically patriotic; contrary to Obama’s speech it is the ideas espoused, ideas his address specifically belittled, which does that. This content includes individualism, liberty, and yes, the ability to rely on an unchanging, inalienable, set of rights and legal processes that guide the way the country is governed rather than turning to novelty and reactionism to address problems of the moment.