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What to Make of Barack Obama?

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But the truth may be that Obama actually does believe in progressive governance, that he saw his Second Inaugural as his last big opportunity to make that case to the American public. In his heart, he appears to be a reformer, yet also a pragmatist, recognizing the many impediments and obstacles in the political terrain where he finds himself.

Yet, after a first term in which he seemed to cede too much ground, Obama took the rhetorical fight to right-wingers in his Second Inaugural, challenging their claim to be the true protectors of America's Founding principles, that they alone understand American "exceptionalism" and that they might even have to resort to armed insurrection against the constitutionally elected government of the United States to stop "tyranny" and "take back" the country.

To those delusions, Obama said:

"Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.

"What makes us exceptional, what makes us American, is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.'

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"Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while 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, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed. For more than two hundred years, we have."

Obama then made his case for continued reform within the constitutional framework:

"Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together. Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.

"Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune. Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.

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"But we 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. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.

"No single person can train all the math and science teachers, we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people."

Reversing Reagan

Thirty-two years ago, when Ronald Reagan declared in his First Inaugural Address that "government is the problem," the United States began a radical shift away from the lessons of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the post-World War II "GI Bill" and Dwight Eisenhower's constructive Republicanism -- the key elements that built the Great American Middle Class and achieved an unprecedented level of financial security for many Americans.

Behind Reagan, a resurgent Right sped off in a new direction, convincing many white middle- and working-class men that their interests lay more with the rich plutocrats than with struggling minorities and underpaid women, that the real victims in America were Ayn Rand's supermen whose economic dynamism needed to be "unchained."

Thus, for most of the ensuing three decades, through lower taxes on the rich and deregulation of industry, the nation's wealth shifted dramatically to the top 1 percent, the financial speculators prospered, the middle-class shrank and finally the economic "bubble" burst.

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While Obama's First Inaugural -- and indeed his first term -- concentrated on addressing the economic crisis, his Second Inaugural warned that now the United States must begin facing other crises, from global warming to gun violence to rebuilding the middle class to protecting important social programs for those in need. He said:

"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.

"We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own. ... We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. ... 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. ...

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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