Much has been made of how President Obama's inaugural speech interpreted America's founding documents to justify a more liberal agenda. The promise of equality laid out in the Declaration of Independence, Obama argued, could not be fulfilled until "our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts"; until "our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law"; until "we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity"; and until "all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm." In Obama's view, it is America's "task to carry on what those pioneers began," linking the progressive cause, as well as its vehicle in a proactive government, to that aspiration of a more perfect union first inscribed in the preamble of the Constitution.
Obama's speech certainly marks an evolution in his political outlook. In his 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention, which sparked his meteoric rise to the presidency, Obama recast American history through the prism of his own experience, captured in the line, "In no other country on Earth is my story even possible." Obama weaved the founding documents with his personal story to make the case that America's disparate elements are bound by a democratic ideal, and hence united in common purpose: "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." His latest speech, in contrast, was less an appeal for unity than a forthright argument for a particular ideological view, and less about himself than strengthening a liberal movement that has its origins in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and the civil rights movement.
Of course, Obama is hardly the first politician to turn to the Founding Fathers to bolster his argument. He can claim that equality and liberty is best guaranteed by a strong government, but his ideological opponents will find plenty of support in the Constitution to argue the opposite. Indeed, opposition to Obama's policies is often couched in the language of the Framers, and portrayed as a defense of the Second Amendment or other textual bastions of individual liberty. Each party views itself as the protector of the country's founding principles and the more noble aspects of its historical legacy.
But what is really interesting, perhaps groundbreaking, about Obama's speech is not his fidelity to America's political traditions — it is the respectful distance he puts between the country's current challenges and its political foundation. Throughout his speech, Obama subtly argued that the Constitution and other founding documents do not have all the answers; that wisdom and foresight is not exclusive to a group of men from the 18th century; and that it is up to a new generation, confident in its own hard-won knowledge and abilities, to chart a path forward. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness may be self-evident truths, but, Obama argues, "they've never been self-executing." While "freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on Earth." And while our prescriptions for a better world may be flawed, the country's unique problems "require us to act in our time."
At first glance, the idea that America's destiny is in the hands of a new generation may sound obvious, even banal. But it actually strikes at a core of modern conservative thinking, distilled in an originalist approach to the Constitution, which seeks to apply the intent of the Founding Fathers to all questions of legal dispute. Originalism builds on the conservative impulse to look to tradition for insight; to remain skeptical of schemes that veer too far from the principles that made American free and successful in the first place; and to always be humble in the face of change, for as Justice Antonin Scalia once warned, "societies can rot as well as ripen."
Under the influence of originalism, however, the Constitution has become the equivalent of religious dogma, a strange irony for a document that is one of history's most successful real-life implementations of Enlightenment thought. The Constitution's spirit of humanism — the belief that humans can rightly judge what is best for themselves based on experience and reason, as opposed to religious teaching — has given way to a more brittle orthodoxy. It has reached the point where a legal precis on the Founding Fathers' view of taxing horse-drawn carriages had great sway at the Supreme Court during oral arguments for ObamaCare, a massive, modern piece of legislation that seeks to resolve a massive, modern problem of providing medical coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans.
The impulse to turn to the original documents for guidance is understandable. As Justice David Souter once said, an originalist approach fulfills "a basic human hunger for… certainty and control." He adds, "And who has not felt that same hunger? Is there any one of us who has not lived through moments, or years, of longing for a world without ambiguity, and for the stability of something unchangeable in human institutions?"
Souter concluded that "in an indeterminate world I cannot control, it is still possible to live fully in the trust that a way will be found leading through the uncertain future… If we cannot share every intellectual assumption that formed the minds of those who framed the charter, we can still address the constitutional uncertainties the way they must have envisioned, by relying on reason, by respecting all the worlds the Framers wrote, by facing facts, and by seeking to understand their meaning for living people."
Souter's language bears a striking similarity to a passage in Obama's speech, in which the president says, "Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness." However, he argues, "We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing today's victories will be only partial."
The conviction that Souter and Obama seem to share is that America, facing a globalized economy and other complex problems that the Framers could not have imagined, must not be afraid to change — even at the risk of rot. In his second term, Obama will face opposition based on what the Framers supposedly would or would not do. His inaugural speech lays the groundwork for a principled rebuttal, based on the humanist spirit that continues to animate the founding documents.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Surviving a plane crash
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- Ted Cruz and the most cynical, despicable political stunt of the year
- When men who abstain from pre-marital sex get married
- The greatest sniper duel in history is a myth
- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: The man who would be caliph
- Everything you need to master Chinese cooking
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
Subscribe to the Week