In his 1978 State of the Union address, President Jimmy Carter said “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals. It cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy. And government cannot mandate goodness.” In 1996, just months before signing a bill into law that dramatically changed how the government helps the poor, President Bill Clinton stated “The era of big government is over.” By reading those quotes, you’d think they would’ve come from Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, not two of the three most recent Democratic Presidents. It’s felt like many of our recent Democratic Presidents have had to run away from being Democrats in order to be politically viable.
This changed Monday morning, when President Obama, in his second inaugural address, made the strongest and most vocal defense of liberalism and expansive government action since President Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society initiative. In his speech, he made a passionate defense of government “entitlement” programs, saying “the commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” He devoted an entire paragraph of his speech to climate change, a topic that many have felt is politically unviable for some time. He alluded to his initiative to curb gun violence. By all accounts, this is the most progressive speech of his Presidency.
Much of President Obama’s speech hinges on references to our nation’s history. One of the most prominent connections between this President and another one of our past Presidents comes through their historical allusions.
When running against Stephen Douglas for a seat in the United States Senate in 1858, Abraham Lincoln hinged his argument on why an expansion of slavery was unacceptable on one of our most famous documents; the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, which famously states that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” When quoting this, Lincoln stated that “This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man.” Lincoln hinged his argument on the fact that the document says “all men,” not “all men, except them.” He based it not on emotion or public opinion, but on our own history.
In his speech on Monday, President Obama made a similar case in the support for same-sex marriage and gender equality. He said that “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” In an area in which many of the arguments are made based on emotion, the President utilized the same, hard-to-argue-against technique that Lincoln used in defending the rights of African Americans. He uses one of the most important documents in our nation’s history and uses its words to make a case for why it makes no sense, legally, for same-sex couples to be prohibited from marrying one another. He said that we must act to “advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall,” alluding to the location in which the Second Continental Conference convened to adopt the Declaration.
It’s been documented before that President Obama is an ardent Lincoln fan, so it is of no surprise to me that he would employ a technique that his idol carried out in order to make a historic case that no President before him has made.