by Jason Stevens
President Obama's second inaugural address, delivered on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, is the clearest example so far of his understanding of the American founding. The speech is full of references to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, not to mention Abraham Lincoln and Rev. King. Throughout, Obama seems to celebrate the Declaration's most famous phrase, recited word for word early in his address:
"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."
Obama says we are on "a never ending journey" to fulfill the Declaration's promise of human equality, and we must "move forward together" to make that promise "real for every American." And although that journey might seem never ending, Obama tells us he can complete it:
"[O]ur 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... 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... 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."
But at a deeper level, Obama is saying that America's founding principles are inadequate for the present times. Our "solemn duty and awesome joy" is to "answer the call of history" and make "ourselves anew," i.e. "fundamentally transform" the nation, as Obama has so often promised.
History has progressed to the point where our old principles do not fit our new nation, but in the first paragraph of the Declaration (never referenced by Obama), the founders invoke not changing history, but the unchanging "Laws of Nature and Nature's God." God (our "Creator") and Nature are the source of our unalienable rights, not history.
In the key passage of the speech, Obama says: "[W]e 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. 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."
To fail to "give real meaning" to the Declaration, to fail to develop "new responses to new challenges," to fail to change with the times and answer history's call is equivalent to meeting fascism and communism with muskets and militias (a refrain of his "horses and bayonets" comment from the debates), because the old principles of the American founding are inadequate to meeting the demands of today, are in fact as useless as muskets and militia, unless we change our understanding of them.
Failing to change means the conquest of fascism and communism, and those who would enslave us. They are the same ones who shun "collective action" and insist on "acting alone," i.e. they are the ones who supposedly say "you're on your own" to "the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice." They are also the ones who "delay," who resist the "move forward," and who "mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate." In other words, the new fascists and communists are apparently members of the Republican Party.
Obama is not the first president to compare his political opponents to fascists. Franklin D. Roosevelt did the same thing in his January, 1944 State of the Union Address: "[I]f history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called 'normalcy' of the 1920's [i.e. the Republican administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover] -- then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home."
In addition to the "Republicans are fascists" nonsense, Obama imitates FDR in another, more significant, way -- employing the language of the founders in the attempt to change our understanding of their fundamental principles.
In that same speech, FDR outlined what he called "a second Bill of Rights" to supplement the original Bill of Rights of the American founders, because the old rights "proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness." The new set of rights included the right to a useful and remunerative job, a decent home, a good education, adequate medical care and good health, and even recreation. He used the language of the founders ("Bill of Rights") to expand their meaning (right to recreation). He used the same tactic in drafting the 1936 Democratic Party platform, constantly repeating the Declaration-inspired phrase, "We hold this truth to be self-evident --".
Likewise, Obama's second inaugural constantly repeats the Constitutional phrase, "We the People." But at the very end of the speech, the Constitutional language changes suddenly to the strange variation, "You and I." In the original "We the People" formulation, there is no special distinction for Obama, who must then change it to make room for himself.
In his second inaugural address, President Obama gives us, the American people, the clearest indication yet of his understanding of the American founders -- and he has declared war on their principles, and by extension, "We the People." That is, unless we decide to change.
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