Liberalism and Freedom

Whatever else you think about the president’s second inaugural address–its combative tone, its choice of issues to emphasize or ignore, its relationship to current disputes in Washington, and even its treatment of the Declaration of Independence–all subjects of great controversy during the last two days–its basic framing deserves a bit more attention that it’s getting.

In particular, Obama made the long-lost liberal case that collective action is necessary to the achievement of individual freedom, instead of implicitly conceding that social goals and individual interests are inherently at war. Consider these lines:

[W]hile freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.

The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few, or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people….

[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….

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.

Even this concluding line, which may have initially sounded like a throw-away, repeated this theme:

With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.

Obama chose to embrace an old but often-forgotten tradition of closely associating liberalism with the “positive freedoms” necessary to make “negative freedoms” meaningful (remember FDR’s “Four Freedoms?” It’s the same idea). And he articulated the progressive conviction that there are forces just as if not more powerful than government with threaten freedom–notably privilege and prejudice.

In doing so, Obama took the advice most notably offered in a much-discussed 2007 essay by Bill Galston for the Washington Monthly entitled “Taking Liberty,” urging progressives to reclaim the rhetoric and substance of their own championship of freedom as integral to the case for collective action through government:

In the real world, which so many conservatives steadfastly refuse to face, there is no such thing as freedom in the abstract. There are only specific freedoms, which differ in their conditions and consequences. FDR famously enumerated four such freedoms, dividing them into two pairs: freedom of speech and worship; freedom from want and fear. The first pair had long been recognized and enshrined in the Constitution. The second were a new formulation, and Roosevelt made them concrete when he signed Social Security into law, justifying it as a way of promoting freedom from want: “We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family… against poverty-ridden old age.” Three years later, he declared that Social Security payments will “furnish that minimum necessity to keep a foothold; and that is the kind of protection Americans want.”

The conservatives of Roosevelt’s era disparaged the second pair as “New Deal freedoms” rather than “American freedoms,” as do many conservatives today. But those who have experienced the freedoms made possible by the New Deal are not so dismissive. It is often observed, rightly, that Social Security has virtually eliminated poverty among the elderly. But this noble achievement has an equally profound flip side. Throughout human history, those who reached the age where they could no longer work have typically depended on their children or on charity for their basic subsistence. Social Security broke this age-old dependency by giving the elderly a minimum degree of economic self-sufficiency. It is almost impossible to exaggerate how much this independence means to seniors. It is why Social Security has become the third rail of American politics. Seniors react with ferocity to efforts to “reform” the program not merely because they are defending a source of income, but because they are defending their freedom.

Liberals seldom talk about Social Security or other programs in terms of freedom. But they should.

Obama did just that, though not as crisply as Galston suggested (nor has he done much to embrace the less defensive and more forward-looking “freedom” agenda Galston urged on progressives in 2007). But beyond its immediate context or the specifics of his speech, it is clear Obama has begun to fight for a liberal interpretation of the meaning and requirements of freedom, and in a country that has always imagined itself as an exceptional “land of the free,” that matters.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent, following up on a conversation with former presidential speechwriter Michael Waldman, had an early and parallel observation on Monday:

Today, Obama quoted extensively from the Declaration, and declared that it is our challenge to “bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” He then went on to make the case for robust government activism in the economy — precisely in order to preserve individual freedom, i.e., the ability to pursue happiness. He linked this to the need for more government investment in infrastructure and education. For rules designed to ensure fair market competition. For maintaining the social safety net (in the form of Social Security and Medicare, achieved by two great Democratic presidents). For the need for a greater push for equal pay for women and full equality for gay Americans (which Obama linked to the struggle for civil rights for African Americans by invoking Martin Luther King).

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.