On Monday, President Obama used his inaugural speech to articulate a decidedly liberal vision for his second term. Drawing inspiration from the most important events in American history — from the Revolutionary War to the civil rights movement — Obama proclaimed that the Founding Fathers' dream of equality and liberty would not be fulfilled until the country reduced income inequality, ensured equal rights for gays and women, protected the most vulnerable citizens from the inequities of laissez faire capitalism, and found a better way to welcome "striving, hopeful immigrants."
Obama also called on government to play an active role in pursuing that agenda, implicitly rejecting President Reagan's assertion, at his own inaugural address in 1981, that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Obama argued that only collective action could heal the country's ills, claiming that Americans "can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism." He added, "Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people."
As Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect put it:
Obama is giving the speech liberals have begged him to give for four years.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) January 21, 2013
Obama's second inaugural speech contrasted starkly with his 2009 address, in which he stressed bipartisanship as a means to resolve a full-blown economic crisis, as well as to address a host of other challenges. The 2009 version of Obama said, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works... When the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. When the answer is no, programs will end."
The 2013 version of Obama, on the other hand, seems far more willing to follow his own impulses — political risks be damned — and plow through ideological objections. "Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government," he declared. "But it does require us to act." He continued: "We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect."
Obama's change in approach can be partly attributed to the fact that he faced near-unified opposition from Republicans in Congress during his first term. He's also done with elections, meaning that if he so chooses, he can unleash an unabashedly liberal agenda without taking political considerations (beyond the 2014 midterms) into account.
However, it could be argued that his re-election represented a sea change in American politics, reflecting a new electorate that has swung left on issues ranging from gay marriage to immigration to economic equality. Many within Obama's winning coalition are looking to government to expand opportunities and strengthen equality, and may not recognize Reagan's assertion that government is the main obstacle to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In that respect, Obama's speech could be seen as an attempt to place himself at the vanguard of this new political movement — and to begin building a legacy that will loom as long as Reagan's.