Barack Obama's second inaugural address was steeped in the progressive traditions of our nation's history. His speech built on the legacy of our country's past giants, and added to that legacy.
Like Martin Luther King in his "I Have a Dream" speech, and Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, Obama started where it all began, with Thomas Jefferson's stirring prelude to 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."
Lincoln built directly on Jefferson's opening line as well, referencing the great event in his speech's opening line:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
And King, standing in front of the Lincoln memorial with Jefferson's memorial close by, built the structure of his speech on both of those moments. In his opening paragraphs, King referenced both Jefferson's words about equality ("When the architects of our great nation wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were writing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men-yes, black men as well as white men -- would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"); and of Lincoln's greatest speech ("Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today... ")
Today, as history tends to do, these great speeches have all the controversy of the times they happened in whitewashed away, and most people tend to think of them as uncontroversial. But Jefferson's words about equality were mocked by many conservative writers and politicians at the time and in the years to come. Referring to Jefferson's love of equality for all people, Alexander Hamilton once said "Your people, sir -- your people are a great beast." Conservatives politicians in the generations after Jefferson such as John Calhoun openly denounced his words and ideas about equality. Conservative intellectuals like the highly influential 20th century writer Russell Kirk was dismissive of Jefferson's ideas of equality and lavished equality's foes like Calhoun with great praise,and modern conservatives from William Buckley to Jesse Helms have been dismissive of the importance of equality as well.
As to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, it's embrace of "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" was bitterly opposed by conservatives in that era because they believed that the nation was only a confederation of states, not one people. And Lincoln's saying that the nation was "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" was considered an outrage by conservative voices such as the Chicago Times: "How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died and libel the statesmen who founded the government." Almost a hundred years later, prominent conservative writer Wilmore Kendall said "Abraham Lincoln... attempted a new act of founding [in the Gettysburg Address], involving concretely a startling new interpretation of that principle of the founders which declared that 'all men are created equal'... We should not allow him to steal the game, to accept his interpretation of the Declaration, it's place in our history, as ... as true, correct, or binding."
President Obama today built on the legacy of Jefferson, of Lincoln, of King. He made a dramatic and sweeping argument for equality, for democracy, for the role of government, and for progress. He argued for taking care of our country's vulnerable, not out of charity but because it made us a stronger country. He spoke to modern day issues like climate change, gay rights, and gun safety by embracing the legacy of our country's past progressive heroes. Just as did in the fall of 2011 when he turned a corner in Osawatamie, Kansas and embraced the old fashioned American populist progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt, Obama promoted progressive ideas by reaching back to the heroes in our country's history of progress.
It was a speech that made this old progressive proud.
Will he live up to it? I hope so. But the simple fact is that the answer to that question is not only up to him. It is up to us, too. Politicians never stand up to powerful special interests or shake up a comfortable status quo without people organizing and pushing to make them do it. And even a well-intentioned president sure can't do things alone in the system we have. President Obama will need to be reminded of the progressive ideals he expressed today at every opportunity -- and when he does do the right thing, he will need to be supported to the hilt. There will also be plenty of issues where the president will be swayed by advisers and Democratic friends who accept the establishment view of the world, who don't want to challenge Wall Street or Walmart or Big Oil because they are convinced by those interests' ideology or their buckets of money or their offers of great jobs in the future. That's when progressives will need to fight the establishment conventional wisdom with everything we have in us, and will have to do everything in our power to bring the president over to the side of the "we the people" he kept talking about today.
But to my friends who are cynical, who say it is just a speech, just words, I would argue that if you look at America's history, words matter. That majestic prelude to the Declaration still rings in our ears and in our hearts. Lincoln's words at Gettysburg quite literally redefined the way Americans think about their country for all time. FDR's reassurance that "all we have to fear is fear itself" helped save an economy on the edge of utter panic. King's words in Lincoln's "shadow" changed America again. Books like Walden, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Silent Spring, and The Feminine Mystique changed the country forever. Obama's 2004 convention speech when he was a state Senator put him on a trajectory to do what no one thought possible, to become the nation's first African-American president less than five years later. Words matter, and when a president makes the case for progressive values in a speech the whole world watches, it is an important moment. We should all be working to help Obama live up to the words he spoke today.