WASHINGTON — President Obama launched his second term with a surprisingly lengthy and bold to-do list, coupled with new recognition of the painful limits of power, politics and time. The silent accompaniment to his second inaugural was the relentless ticking of a clock, marking off the remaining days of the Obama presidency.
At Obama's inauguration four years ago, the moment was transcendent, the speech underwhelming. To read it now is to recall the frightening uncertainty of that moment — Obama spoke of “this winter of our hardship” — and wince at the blustery naivete of the new president's proclamation of “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
The battle-scarred Obama of the second inaugural was simultaneously more realistic and more confident. He spoke like a man who, in the course of four long years, has developed a far sharper vision of the role of government: first, “that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action”; second, that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
Indeed, Obama used the inaugural to continue the argument of the just-concluded campaign. “We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm,” he said. “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.”
Take that, Mitt Romney. More to the point, since Romney has become irrelevant, take that, Paul Ryan.
Obama ought to have toned that section down: At a moment of national unity, the victor doesn't need to rehash and rebut the pet phrases of his vanquished opponents. But Obama's words reflect a measure of his second-term willingness to assert a full-throated vision of active government. This was a speech that tilted decidedly to the left, far more so than four years ago.