Commentary: Obama’s Speech Was a Conservative Speech

If civil rights progress is the exclusive province of liberals, then that's a damning indictment of today’s conservatism.

Posted: 01/23/2013 09:22 AM EST

The conventionally wise have weighed in and declared — with equal parts delight and dismay — that President Obama’s second inaugural address was a robust defense of contemporary liberalism that heartened the left and caused the right to issue a resigned we told you so: Obama, the progressive, finally emerged on Inauguration Day.

With the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson — once a George W. Bush speechwriter — calling Obama’s speech a “a raging bonfire of straw men” and the Post’s Dana Milbank describing the president as preaching to the choir with “a leftover campaign speech combined with an early draft of the State of the Union address,” you’d think that Obama had served up a point-by-point defense of his discretionary spending prerogatives while challenging Republican House Speaker John Boehner to a winner-take-all hand of head’s-up Texas hold ‘em to settle the federal budget.

But they’re both wrong.

Hardly a liberal call to arms, Obama’s second inaugural was a conservative speech that touched on universal, almost inarguable themes that recast the traditional American dream in a modern context — and that could easily have been delivered by a GOP president — past, present or future.

Starting off with a nod to the Declaration of Independence — and a tone that was pure benediction and contained no condemnation — Obama affirmed that “what makes us Americans is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — before reminding that those same truths have “never been self-executing” and admonishing that although “freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.”

At the only point when he mentioned government programs by name — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — Obama explained his view that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. It’s a point that’s sure to be contested in the halls of Congress, but one that starts with the advanced capitalist case for social spending — not as a hammock, but as a safety net that frees us “to take the risks that make this country great.”

Then he expressed his intention to “try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully” — a prerogative he’s more than earned as the commander-in-chief who doubled down in Afghanistan, toppled Moammar Gadhafi and finally hunted down Osama bin Laden.

A nod to the nation’s founding principles, a pledge to seek peace and the public recognition by the leader of the free world of the struggle of women, gays and lesbians and people of color for equality should be considered bipartisan, at least. As former House Speaker and 2012 Republican presidential also-ran Newt Gingrich noted, it was “classically American, emphasizing hard work, emphasizing self-reliance, emphasizing doing things together.”

Yes, I suppose you could hear all of this as a liberal love letter, which Slate’s John Dickerson categorized as “partisan” and evocatively described as “the song of America’s civil rights progress.” But if civil rights progress is the exclusive province of liberals, then it’s a pretty damning indictment of today’s conservatism.

And if that message is taken as the opposite of conservative — even on Inauguration Day 2013 — then conservatism is in worse shape than we thought.

Follow @Swerdlick on Twitter.

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(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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