WASHINGTON — No doubt anymore where President Barack Obama wants America, and history, to place him: As a tough-minded liberal.
Forget the cautious moderation that often marked his first term and frustrated his most liberal supporters. His second inaugural struck a resolute, even combative tone as Obama positioned himself as a 21st-century champion of the disadvantaged, a modern-day heir to the Progressive Era.
The speech marked the culmination of a theme Obama started claiming more than a year ago with a speech in the same Kansas town where Theodore Roosevelt a century ago laid out his vision for a new nationalism of government as protector of the poor and working class against the rich and powerful.
Then, it was helping the people survive the sharp edges of the Industrial Revolution at the hands of what Roosevelt once called the “malefactors of great wealth.” Monday, it was promising a government that would help people make it through an age of rapid social and economic change at the start of this new century.
For a middle class that’s been losing ground for a decade, he promised new policies. For gays emerging from the shadows of society, he promised recognition and rights, the first president ever to use the word “gay” in an inaugural address. For immigrants who snuck into the country without documentation, he offered the promise of a new policy.
“We the people,” Obama said Monday, “understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
He challenged the country to set aside the politics of confrontation in search of progress toward great challenges. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” he said. “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
He also used the speech to forge a bond with the country, signaling that he speaks for and with the people, more than individual members of Congress. He used the phrase “we the people” five times. He used the word “we” more than 60 times.
Obama starts his second term with no honeymoon period. Although he won re-election with 51.1 percent of the popular vote, his latest Gallup approval rating was 50 percent, meaning his coalition is intact but not growing.
Chances are the Monday address won’t change Washington, at least not immediately.
Obama bet that by crafting an image as a dogged progressive, Republicans will know he’s ready to fight. The tea party, death panels, more taxes, none of that scares me, he signaled. I’ll be reasonable, he promised, but I’ll be firm.