President Obama set the theme for his second inaugural address by quoting from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
He did not quote the very next sentence of the foundation document of our nation. It says, "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Perhaps he feared it would sound too "socialist."
But the body of the president's address shows that he, like the founders, understands that the evils that stand in the way of happiness, of liberty, of life itself, are not found only in oppressive governments, but also in the ungoverned and uncivilized parts of human existence that another philosopher aptly described as a life that is "nasty, brutish and short."
In laying out his priorities for his second term, Obama quietly abandoned some of the implications of his first inaugural, the idea that he would be a post-partisan president, bringing us to reasoned decisions with a minimum of factional fuss.
He picked up a more starkly progressive, perhaps even combative, theme of protecting and creating an America where people can fulfill their hopes, dreams and potential, not only because government does not stand in their way, but also because government helps to create the atmosphere in which people are free to strive, and fail, and strive again.
Obama's address as did his election victory markedly rebuked the campaign theme of his opponent in the last election. He said that our social safety net Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security (and a modest omission: Obamacare) and our civil rights laws, "do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
The oppressions of government, through history and around the world, have been and are real. But the oppressions outside government in Franklin Roosevelt's words: want and fear are what both we and our revolutionary ancestors have worked to fend off with government, a government that serves us, a government that answers to us.
As Obama said, our progress has been slow and imperfect. The job will not be done in the next four years, or 40, or 400. Programs that "promote the general welfare" must be sustainably and fairly funded. The long march of human equality moves by fits and starts.
But the president, at least, understands what our government, from its creators down the present day, is for.
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