Rich Lowry: President Obama's re-founding

BY RICH LOWRY Published: January 23, 2013
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For the left, this is what winning looks like. President Barack Obama gave a second inaugural address that just as easily could have been delivered by progressive darling Elizabeth Warren.

If the president didn't repeat the phrase that Republicans threw back at him so often during the 2012 campaign — “you didn't build that” — the speech was a meditation on the same theme of the limits of individual action. The address was a paean to collectivism, swaddled in the rhetoric of individual liberty and of fidelity to the founding.

He began and ended with the Founding Fathers and threaded the Declaration of Independence throughout. This gave the speech a conservative sheen. He used the words “timeless,” “ancient,” “lasting” and “enduring.” He sounded like Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in invoking “what makes us exceptional,” namely “our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.”

But this framing of the speech only served to amplify the ambition of Obama's larger political project. He hopes to reorient the American mainstream and locate conservatives outside it. He wants to take the Founders from the right and baptize the unreconstructed entitlement state and the progressive agenda in the American creed.

In Obama's telling, the high points of our national life are found in collective action, in the growth of government, in teachers trained and roads built. “Now, more than ever,” he declared, “we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”

He presented his agenda as the logical consequence of the Declaration of Independence's enunciation of the equality of all men and our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For Obama, that means equal-pay legislation, gay marriage and amnesty for illegal immigrants. He included a long passage on the necessity of fighting climate change with transformative energy policies.

According to President Obama, entitlements like Medicare and Social Security don't merely represent a necessary safety net for the vulnerable. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great,” he maintained, in a highly imaginative interpretation of these programs.