Obama speaks up on inequality

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President Obama at the U.S. Capitol before delivering his inaugural address
An inaugural address "is rarely an occasion for original thought or stimulating reflection," the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in an introduction to a collection of them published in 1965. "The platitude quotient tends to be high, the rhetoric stately and self-serving, the ritual obsessive, and the surprises few.”

Things haven't improved since '65. New and renewed presidents have soared to higher and higher platitudes. In his 2009 inaugural, Barack Obama reminded Americans of their preeminence. "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given," he said. "It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less."

America "will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories," Obama went on four years ago. "We will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do."

And so on.

He withdrew heavily from the First Bank of Stale Metaphors. Rising tides of prosperity and still waters of peace were followed by gathering clouds and raging storms.

There were plenty of bromides again today, but the speech was more focused. The main target of the bromides was inequality:

"We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."

"We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few."

"Every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity."

"We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own."

That one was odd, since little kids tend to be unaware of their relative freedom or equality. But the thought was there.

"Our journey is not complete," the president said, "until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."

Around the world, he said, "We must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice."

He invoked Martin Luther King's proclamation "that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."

Without saying so exactly, Obama was advocating for the role of government—the considerable role of government—more forcefully than he has since he ran for president the first time.

That he did so in platitudes is to be expected, since it was an inaugural speech. His State of the Union address three weeks from now will require specifics. Then we'll have a better idea if today's address signaled anything new, or was just the usual inaugural hot air.

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