The quick spin on President Obama's inaugural address Monday — immediately labeled by national media as "a liberal vision" for shared national tasks and goals — misses the larger reality. Regardless of political labels, there is no viable alternative. An intensively competitive global economy driven by cheap labor, voracious consumption of dwindling natural resources and uncontrolled pollution in the Earth's air and oceans, makes this nation's common goals and shared values the only path to prosperity and improved quality of life for all Americans.
President Obama's central message was essentially an appeal for a cohesive center that looks out for, and leads toward, the common good, and that provides the civic infrastructure needed to move innovation, job creation and quality of life forward. He rightly believes it is government's responsibility to promote quality public education, secure health care, disaster relief, unemployment aid, and research and innovation to help spur job growth and stronger communities.
That's not the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest and the leanest government possible. Yet it's a rare conservative who would say they would shred the safety net of Medicare, Social Security and public infrastructure, and return his or her family, or less fortunate loved ones, to homeless streets if they lost their jobs and employer-based insurance due to the competitive adjustments of the global marketplace.
Hence Obama merely reminded us that "together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, [and] schools and colleges to train our workers. That "together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play." That "together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune."
Even as the nation remains skeptical of a central authority and reliant on personal enterprise and character, he noted, we know "that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."
"No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people."
In an oblique reference to Republicans' unyielding focus on cutting safety net programs, Obama agreed that some reductions in health care cost must be found. But he bluntly rejected "the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country, and investing in the generation that will build its future."
"We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
Obama also broadened the case for equal pay for women and equal constitutional and civil rights for gays and lesbians. And he took on the need to foster sustainable energy and fight climate change, at home and abroad, as both an obligation to our children and future generations, and as a necessity to maintain our market competitiveness and economic prosperity.
He took similar pragmatic approaches to the need for immigration reform, multilateral pressure over knee-jerk military interventions, and political consensus over futile absolutism and partisanship that hinder progress on the nation's necessary business. "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," Obama emphasized. "We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and 40 years, and 400 years hence, to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall."
If this sort of equity-minded, fairness-driven, future-oriented pragmatism is a pitch for a liberal agenda, then we have to wonder about where the alternative position, labeled conservatism, would take the country.