Making the Pursuit of Happiness Real for Every American

If President Obama’s first inaugural was defined by the circumstances of the time—an economy in free fall—then his second reflects the challenges we’ve overcome. With the United States on a clear path to recovery, the president used his inaugural address to articulate his vision for a better society. In doing so, not only has he given one of his most liberal speeches, but he has made one of history’s most progressive inaugural addresses.

In just under 20 minutes, Obama defended the core accomplishments of his first term—ending the war in Iraq, expanding health insurance to millions of Americans, and halting the Great Recession—and made a broader argument about the necessity of collective action, channeled—in part—through the mechanisms of government.

Americans have always been skeptical of “central authority,” but as the president explained, they’ve also recognized that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Indeed, Obama echoes countless liberals when he says that Americans are “strengthened” by the “commitments we make to each other.” For him, the vicissitudes of life require us to work together and build a society that guarantees “a basic measure of security and dignity” for all its members.

But this, Obama notes, is threatened by rising inequality: “We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” For Obama, to protect, preserve, and expand those commitments is to ensure the United States remains a place of opportunity and success for those who want it. Contra the right wing, this doesn’t mean a cradle-to-grave welfare state—Obama says that America thrives when “every person can find independence and pride in their work.” But it does mean a place where we acknowledge the positive role government can play in creating shared prosperity.

Equal opportunity isn’t just economic: Indeed—in a nod to Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil-rights leaders—Obama believes our principles require justice for all marginalized people, and that we are on an ongoing journey to fulfill those principles. This journey, he says, is not complete until “our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” "until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” and until “no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”

It should be said that there was more than poetry to this address. Obama also made programmatic commitments to the unfinished business of his first term. He promised to “respond to the threat of climate change,” to invest in new clean-energy technology, and to “try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully,” turning away from the war-strewn path favored by the previous administration. And if his words on civil rights are any indication, Obama plans to reform our nation’s immigration system, fix our voting problems, and further support the push for marriage equality.

This is a bold agenda, attached to a bold vision for the progressive society Obama hopes to help craft. Whether or not he’s able to do so, of course, is the question of his second term.