Freedom From or Freedom To?: Politiscripting Obama’s Second Term

President Obama used his second inaugural address to establish some throughlines for his entire second term. The emerging keywords/contrasts in the speech were

journey/fixed set of rights

principle/absolutism

politics/spectacle/

collective action/individual freedom

reasoned debate/name-calling

As James Fallows argues on The Atlantic website:

The rhetorical and argumentative purpose of the speech as a whole was to connect what Obama considers the right next steps for America — doing more things “together,” making sure that everyone has an equal chance, tying each generation’s interests to its predecessors’ and its successors’ — with the precepts and ideals of the founders, rather than having them be seen as excesses of the modern welfare state.

As in the one-sentence summary at the start of the speech, Obama wants to claim not just Lincoln but also Jefferson, Madison, Adams, George Washington, and the rest as guiding spirits for his kind of progressivism. In this passage he works toward that end by numbering among “our forebears” — those honored ancestors who fought to perfect our concepts of liberty and of union — the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and other veterans of Selma including still-living Rep. John Lewis, and the protestors 44 years ago at the Stonewall.

Right on cue (and speaking of “name-calling”), the Republican commentariat has likewise wasted no time laying out their own rhetorical maps. Snides and sneers prevail, calling Obama a “dogged collectivist” (Jennifer Rubin); an elitist who wants us all to bow to his “superior moral purposes” (the Wall Street Journal editorial page); “alienating”, “sour”, “paranoid”, “self-pitying” and “strange”  (Peggy Noonan);  “untrustworthy” (Ramesh Ponnuru); and, of course, a pusher of “big government” (Fred Barnes).  These commentators take strongest exceptions to Obama’s “progressive myth” (aka, “the journey”), which runs counter to their bedrock belief that “the primary task of government is the protection of a fixed set of rights from ever-changing threats” (Ponnuru),  They seem to be in great fear of what Gerald Seib calls Obama’s “pent-up agenda,” his “misplaced” emphasis to “roll over his foes”, or, as Erick Erickson puts it, Obama’s inclination to make people “the subjects of government, not citizens in charge of it”. They see Obama as one super-demonic “threat”.

At the heart of the fray is Obama’s contention in his speech that “individual freedom requires collective action”. This runs entirely counter to, say, the Journal’s claim of Obama’s vision of an “activist, expansive government”, with “activism” being at least as much of a pejorative as “community organizer” was in Obama’s first campaign. Denying collectivism and almost any moral dimension to government, the Republican right offers nothing new, but only their unwavering counter-agenda:

Probably more than any other party in the world, the Republicans have in recent decades stood unflinchingly for the cause of liberty abroad, and, at home, with a bit more uncertainty, for limited, constitutional government and for the principle that government exists to serve free men and free markets, not the reverse. (William Kristol)

Government vs. markets is one succinct distillation of the principles underlying the endless and debilitating gridlock and rancor to come. They essentialize government as something alien and other, as a hydra-headed entity that has a mysterious life of its own. They do not see it as shared sacrifice and purpose, as an expression of collective will. Obama’s head may explode as he tries to figure out how the vision of a collective city on a hill, whose whole exceeds the sum of its parts, has been reduced to markets, being left alone, and thinly-veiled Social Darwinism; how the “freedom to” create something new in the world has degenerated into “freedom from” any binding and ennobling social obligation.

Republicans have a thousand ways to describe encroachments on their freedom, but seem to have run out of words to describe what they want to do with that freedom. They are “absolute” in their irrational hatred of government. They are not willing, to use Obama’s own words, “take the risks that make this country great”. They reject his paradoxical, “united we stand” dictum that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action”.

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