The president’s soaring rhetoric about equality and his stirring lines about women, GLBT folk, and immigrants may well be what history remembers about his second inaugural address. But the brief passage about the New Deal/Great Society legacy may be a better indication of how he’s trying to position himself for the big battles with Republicans just ahead:
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work hard or learn more, reach higher.
That’s a classic “New Democratic” formulation of the relationship between unchanging progressive goals and flexible means for achieving them. In this context, it also represents a signal that Obama will probably not obey any course of action that requires placing the big entitlement programs off-limits to modifications if he can get a big fiscal deal to his liking. But this doesn’t open the door to “reforms” that amount to an abandonment of the social safety net:
But while the means will change, our purpose endures. A nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American, that is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.
But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.
For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. 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. 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.
So: there’s a categorical rejection of the idea that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are somehow corrosive of the national spirit or unaffordable in an era of public-sector austerity. But Obama’s also leaving the door open to changes in the entitlements (perhaps just minor tweaks, but maybe something more significant like more means-testing) that he can at least try to defend as faithful to the progressive spirit that created the programs in the first place.
It’s interesting that the address made no reference to his most important first-term accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps it goes without saying that this initiative is off-limits to negotiation, although a commitment to its root-and-branch repeal remains a litmus-test promise for Republicans. But all in all, the address continues the rhetoric line that characterized most of the president’s speeches during the 2012 campaign: a combative but very real openness to deal-making on terms of his own.