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What Was the Meaning of President Obama's Second Inaugural Address?

No sooner did President Barack Obama finish his second inaugural address than the liberal pundits proclaimed it to be a speech of unity on behalf of all Americans. Yes, it is a platitude, but all of us do pause to reaffirm the greatness of our republic, and to celebrate the election of a chief executive with whom many of us may disagree but who nevertheless represents our country as a whole and is entrusted by us to make the tough decisions that all our countrymen will have to live with. The speech, however, left much to be desired, and my first take is that it will not be one that many will remember in future years.

The president took generalities with which we all agree and used them to imply that to carry on in the American tradition, “progressive” measures favored by his base need to be implemented.

Take the enthusiastic response by liberal columnist Matthew Yglesias writing at Slate. According to Yglesias, the president’s speech was “not even slightly” anti-capitalist, but instead was a defense of economic liberalism tempered by a “robust welfare state and select government interventions in the economy.” Obama, he thinks, came off not as any kind of socialist or statist, but as a pragmatist in the American tradition who believes that fidelity to the Constitution demands a “pragmatic response to changing circumstances.”

Thus the president said in his speech that a “free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.” Echoing the progressivism of the age of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he emphasized that a “great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”

Few would disagree, including most conservatives. But the devil, of course, lies in the details.

The problem is well spelled out by William Voegeli, who in the current issue of National Review warns Americans about the coming Swedenization of America. He notes the difference between European social democracies and the United States and our welfare state:

Our deeply rooted, don’t-tread-on-me Jeffersonianism means that we cannot be persuaded to buy even a relatively modest welfare state unless a significant portion of the purchase is financed with debt. In this we are unlike the Europeans, who want cradle-to-grave welfare states with enough to pay cash for them.

[The welfare state] creates strong incentives for individuals to have fewer children of their own and rely instead on aggregated financial support from everyone’s children, thereby putting social-security systems under intolerable strain.

The social-democratic project, already sinking in Europe and Scandinavia, cannot work here. Yet, by implication -- arguing that it is only a pragmatic adjustment for today to our Constitutional obligations -- the president is subtly suggesting that our nation continue down a forlorn path.