On January 21, Barack Obama made his second Inaugural Address. Much has been said about it: his address presented a liberal vision for the next four years, a renewed commitment to equality and social programs, and a promise to dedicate the United States to combating climate change. These things are of vital importance and have been discussed by people with far more political expertise than me. But what struck me about the speech was something else: Obama went out of his way to present himself as though he were speaking to us citizen to citizen. He never referred to himself as President. When he spoke of the inauguration, he spoke of it in the abstract: “Each time we gather to inaugurate a president…” His speech was written less as a statement of the actions his administration is going to take than as an attempt to articulate the thoughts and beliefs of American citizens – albeit a liberal portion of them. An undertone of the speech, I think, was a gentle reminder that we as citizens have to take an active role in participating in this republic.
The latter half of Obama’s speech was structured around a repetition of “we, the people” followed by an analysis of what it is that ‘the people’ know and believe in: equality and equal opportunity, ending war and encouraging peace, and a commitment to confronting climate change. These are things you might expect a president to bring up, but he framed the discussion around one of the most important phrases in American history: the beginning of the Constitution. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”
This is our founding charter, the blueprint of our republic, and perhaps the most important reminder that the United States was formed “of, and by, and for the people,” to quote both Obama and Abraham Lincoln. After five sets of “we, the people,” Obama finished with a call to action, for the moderation and compromise necessary to make political decisions. Then: “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course,” he said. “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time.”
His message, it seems to me, is pretty clear. Peoples’ duties as citizens are not reserved for one day in November every few years. The people – we, the people – are the fundamental source of power for every politician in Washington. They serve at our pleasure, and they are, therefore, not going to act in a way that would disturb their constituents. If the minority party’s constituents are going to punish any representatives who allow the majority party to pass legislation, no legislation will pass. House Democrats will fight tooth and nail to prevent Republican-majority legislation from leaving the House; Senate Republicans will filibuster any liberal bill or appointment they can get their hands on. Obama spent much of his first term trying to compromise with Congressional Republicans, with limited success. Members of Congress have no incentive to work with the president if their constituents will punish them for it by voting them out of office.
It is for this reason that Obama harped so hard on the idea of ‘we the people’, invoking the words of our founding document to beat us over the head with the fact that we are citizens of the United States 365 days a year, and with that citizenship comes responsibility. It is hypocritical to sit back and complain about the gridlock in Washington because we are the ones who caused that gridlock. We elected this set of intransigent politicians. We poured oil and water in a jar and were surprised to find they didn’t mix. Obama’s speech gently encouraged us, then, to take a more active role in participatory politics. As citizens, Obama said, we have the “power” and the “obligation” to determine the course of politics in this country.
I am not necessarily arguing that Obama is right in suggesting that we have the power to make a difference here. It is easy to claim that people were irresponsible in electing a liberal president, a liberal Senate, and a Republican House; but in reality it’s not as simple as that, because of things like gerrymandering in determining House districts. But Obama is surely correct in the principle of the issue: that the people ought to take more responsibility for what they do with their ballots. That the culture of politics in this country should shift away from the assumption that after early November, everything in Washington is out of our hands.
I am not arguing that Obama’s speech is going to change anything, but I am arguing that going public in the manner that he did was the best option available to him. Going public in this way has its downsides, of course. Conventional wisdom suggests that a president who sidesteps Congress and appeals directly to the people will face difficulty working with Congress down the road. At this point in Obama’s presidency, however, it appears that he has little choice in the matter. Senate Republicans have attempted to block, by way of the filibuster, even relatively low-level executive appointments. He simply can’t get anything done through Congress, and so used this speech to appeal directly to the citizens at large, to try to convince them that although it may seem that the system is broken, it need not remain so.