President Barack Obama’s inaugural address expressed something not heard in Washington for many decades: liberalism without a guilty conscience.
That the new president is liberal in his political philosophy was clear. His narrative for American history is one of expanding equality. His sketch of the economic crisis had the lines of the classic liberal model, that the prosperous few must not be coddled. His foreign policy overview stressed that we hated no one, and would strive for humility in our use of power.
While many of these values are shared across party lines, they are the specific priorities are modern liberalism.
But from the guts of this address I heard none of the cringing irony about patriotism, none of the apologetic nods to other societies, none of the moral weakness that drained liberalism of its power in the last decades of the twentieth century.
The president’s speech was filled with our history, saturated with it. He presented us with an American legacy that was strong, not hypocritical. And he made an unequivocal claim that this legacy requires our loyalty:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.
There were fighting words grounded in cultural confidence:
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
What I heard in this speech was the tone of the old liberalism of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, the liberalism that forged the victorious cold war strategy. It is not a philosophy I can agree with, especially not in its view of the state’s role in society. But it is a liberalism I can respect.