Many have commented that President Obama’s second inaugural address was more partisan and ambitious than his first, with one commentator calling it “the most liberal or progressive message [she] heard him deliver” as president.


What stuck out for me was his rather (in my view) enlightened discussion of freedom and personal responsibility. Although he did state that our “insistence on hard work and personal responsibility” are “constants in our character,” he spent much more time talking about (1) structural limitations on individual action and (2) the inevitable possibility that misfortunes could befall any one of us.

On the first point, President Obama said that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Specifically, he made clear that a modern economy could not run without “railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce,” and “schools and colleges to train our workers.” Even within a “free market,” he continued, general prosperity was only possible when “there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.”

On the second point, Obama was even more forceful, stating that a “great nation must…protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.” Echoing sentiments I pointed out earlier in this post on Barney Frank, he said that “no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm.” Although disaster relief is generally much more popular than long-term unemployment benefits or Medicaid, the general underlying was quite compelling, which is that “We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.”

Although no one would want to disagree that ‘freedom’ should be reserved for the lucky, plenty seem to support the idea that basic health care, education, and living wages should be. If President Obama actually enacts legislation that reflects his inspired and inspiring rhetoric, then we may be better be able to make the case that, in his words, supporting each other “does not make us a nation of takers,” it “frees us to take the risks that make this country great,” and that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”