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Obama's Inaugural Vision of Moral Citizenship
Live-blogging President Barack Obama's inaugural speech earlier with my colleague Paula Dwyer, I may have sold it short. After reading the text, I see it's a pretty remarkable document of Obama's moral vision -- arguably the most complete one he has provided.
The theme that individual liberty is based on collective security, and that it's dependent on the extent to which we afford dignity to fellow citizens, recurs throughout the speech. Obama characterizes Martin Luther King Jr.'s message as "our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth."
Citizenship here is defined less as a political status than a moral one:
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.
The last four words of that sentence -- "also in our own" -- are the ones that really count. We can't leave the child's fate to God, Obama says, we have to guarantee her dignity ourselves. We owe her something.
The girl's claim is on our morality more than on our politics. Recognizing that claim is the essence of the Democratic Party philosophy; validating it is the purpose of Obama's program. It's also the chief source of his conflict with Republicans, who want to restrict the child's claim to voluntary charity -- denying she has a legitimate claim on government.
Obama makes pragmatic arguments on behalf of his vision of citizenship, as well. He argues that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security "free us to take the risks that make this country great." In other words, they pass a cost-benefit analysis. But those practical arguments are subordinate. The primary tasks he describes are moral: If we fail to respond to climate change, for example, we "would betray our children and future generations."
Similarly, he links "Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall" as stations on the American cross, where individual rights were asserted and rebuffed before the nation's moral fabric stretched to accommodate the new claimants.
So when he closes the speech with a call on "You and I, as citizens," he's talking about citizens as moral actors "inextricably bound" in a tight web of human endeavor. These citizens act not only politically -- "with the votes we cast" -- but "with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals."
"Ancient" and "enduring" predate and postdate the current political moment. Obama is drawing on Judeo-Christian roots, confident that the prophetic voices channeled by Abraham Lincoln and King will ultimately drown out the howls of Ayn Rand and the NRA. King made morality his battlefield. Obama just signaled that he plans to do the same.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)