With his second inauguration, Barack Obama will become the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to renew his tenure after having won more than 51 percent of the vote in two consecutive elections.
More importantly, in a political sense, he will be the first Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to have won mandates from the majority of the American people in two consecutive elections.
This is the perspective that Americans should bring to the inaugural festivities. We should expect a great deal from Barack Obama. Despite four years of battering by Fox News and Limbaugh and the Tea Party and Mitch McConnell, he has been re-elected with a higher percentage of the popular vote than John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992 or 1996 or George Bush in 2000 or 2004.
Obama’s mandate extends beyond himself. His party has increased its Senate majority and Democrats earned 1.4 million more votes in House races than Republicans. Gerrymandering and money kept Republican control of the House, but that opposition party is in such disarray that the president really does have an opening to make something of his mandate.
Obama must seize that opportunity as an essential part of making the case for bold executive orders and a bold legislative agenda that will bring not just the hope but the change he promised in what now seems like a very distant 2008 campaign. The president has in the transition period since the 2012 election displayed a willingness to push harder, to go bigger, and it has yielded significant progress not just on gun-safety issues but in the long struggle against the Republican austerity agenda that makes a diety of deregulating away consumer and environmental protections, tearing the social safety net and cutting taxes for wealthy campaign donors.
To consolidate that progress, and to assure that his second term will be as visionary and activist as his 2012 campaign promised, Obama must, like FDR, use every opportunity to give voice to the agenda—not just in his inaugural address but in his February 12 (Lincoln’s Birthday) State of the Union address.
To do this, the forty-fourth president would be wise to note his electoral connection to the thirty-second, as a Democrat who after a difficult first term has earned as second term with a mandate to govern. Yes, times and circumstances are different. Obama does not have the “New Deal” Congress that Roosevelt did, but neither does he face quite the economic challenge that FDR did.
But Obama’s responsibility in 2013 is the same as Roosevelt’s in 1937: the president must turn America’s attention toward its democratic vistas. He must tell the people that not just he but they have accomplished something. And that they can accomplish much, much more in the next four years.
Roosevelt did this when he used his second inaugural address to deliver an argument for government that was, at once, bold and well-reasoned.
FDR portrayed his first term as a time of struggle “to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it; to end by action, tireless and unafraid, the stagnation and despair of that day.” But he envisioned a second term in which government could become a force not merely for tempering the worst excesses of Wall Street but for making real the promise of new age.
“Instinctively we recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization. Repeated attempts at their solution without the aid of government had left us baffled and bewildered. For, without that aid, we had been unable to create those moral controls over the services of science which are necessary to make science a useful servant instead of a ruthless master of mankind. To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men,” Roosevelt explained.
“We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease. We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”
“In this,” FDR concluded, “we Americans were discovering no wholly new truth; we were writing a new chapter in our book of self-government.”
Roosevelt’s genius was the linking of democracy and self-governance, the reminding of Americans that through elections and government they have the master economic and political forces that would otherwise dominate them. After a 2012 election campaign that his Republican foes portrayed as a referendum on the role of government, Obama has a mandate to make government work again for the American people. His inaugural address should claim that mandate with all the passion and all the determination that FDR brought to the mission seventy-six years ago.
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