President Barack Obama in his second inaugural address did more than just signal his intent to lead the United States toward an unmistakably progressive future; he attempted to recast the meaning of the nation’s founding principles to support his vision of an expanded, activist Washington, D.C.
Particularly through Obama’s repetition of the opening line of the Constitution, “we the people,” which the president recited with a distinct pause between the words “we” and “the,” he moved to link his agenda for the government to play a larger, more central role in Americans’ lives to the founders and the country’s founding documents. Obama essentially asserted that America could only live up to its most cherished virtues when citizens are protected by, rather than from, the government.
“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,” Obama said. “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
Howls could be heard coming from the right even before the 20-minute, 2,100-word speech concluded.
Congressional Republicans and conservative activists no doubt gnashed their teeth over Obama’s appropriation of the very language that became a rallying cry of the 2010 tea party revolt to support a domestic agenda at odds with their call for the country to rediscover its roots as a federalist republic whose constitution reserved most power for the states.
But in responding to Obama, conservatives and congressional Republicans have to ask themselves this key question as they look ahead to the 113th Congress just under way and the 2014 midterms and 2016 presidential election: Are they engaged in politics to achieve an emotional catharsis or to rally the public in an effort to influence public policy? This is a particularly relevant question for the Republicans serving in the House majority.
If conservatives outside Congress and Republicans on Capitol Hill are serious about winning the Senate in 2014, recapturing the White House in 2016 and earning the ability to govern that would come with those victories, they’ll stop complaining about Obama. They will stop complaining that he won the election or is winning the argument because he didn’t or isn’t telling the truth.
And, they will stop sounding so eager to shut down the government and risk federal default, while describing their own policy goals as the country akin to having to 'take its medicine.'
Instead, the same way Obama has taken a page from conservatives and congressional Republicans in using the country’s founding principles and documents to try to justify his agenda, they will emulate him and attempt to characterize their plans in language and images that aren’t just true as they see it, but actually appeal to a broad cross section of voters.