In the process, President Obama attempted nothing less than an assault on the timeless notion of liberty itself:
Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone.
But 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.
After praising the "collective" and mocking the notion that America is a "nation of takers," President Obama targeted the political opposition. He targeted those who "deny" climate change, attacked those who allegedly refused to reward the elderly for their contributions, and defied critics whom he said wanted "perpetual war." He attacked the rich--as he has done so often over the past four years--and painted a caricature of an unjust nation: "...our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it....We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few."
President Obama's address failed to deliver on promises earlier in the day by senior political adviser David Axelrod that the speech would sound themes of national unity on a day of national "consecration." Instead, the president sounded combative themes familiar from his divisive first term, albeit wrapped occasionally in the lofty rhetoric of "hope" and "tolerance," and punctuated by the repeated refrain: "We, the People."
He acknowledged Americans have diverse concepts of liberty, but insisted that these could all fit together under the collective mission of the government to achieve its redistributive aims. Days after describing Republicans as determined to hurt the poor and elderly, he accused his opposition of intolerance: "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."
The president cited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is celebrated today, citing his "I Have a Dream" speech, implying that when Dr. King told America that "our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth," he was referring not to civil rights but to the mighty will of the state.
President Obama also spoke out in favor of gay rights and immigration reform, acknowledging groups of voters that were central to his re-election effort--yet for whom he did not fulfill many of his first-term pledges. He touched on three historic locations--"Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall"--critical to the history of the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement, respectively.
Throughout his address, the President maintained his voice in a near-shout. This was not an historic address, a reflection on a moment in history; it was an exhortation to political action, in contrast to the political reality of a divided Washington, in defiance of the profound economic challenges still facing the American people.
It was a declaration of political war on individual liberty. It was a wasted opportunity--and a warning.