If the public remembers anything about the 2013 Inauguration, it is likely to be President Obama’s historic remarks on gay rights. But as moving as this moment was, it probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise (when even Newt Gingrich has conceded defeat on the issue, it’s no longer a high-risk proposition to give a shout-out to the gays).
The prize for the most unexpected moment of the Address, then? Despite being labeled a socialist by his opponents, Obama wasn’t afraid to mention a bunch of scary liberal entitlement programs — not vaguely, but by name, no less:
The commitments we make to each other —through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security—these things 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.
This makes Obama the first president in history to mention social insurance programs in unequivocally positive terms during an Inaugural Address (he couched his advocacy with only a brief acknowledgement that not “all society’s ills can be cured through government alone”). In fact, while Medicare and Medicaid have been around since 1965 and Social Security since 1935, the only other president to even acknowledge their existence in an Inaugural Address was George W. Bush, who vowed to “reform Social Security and Medicare, sparing our children from struggles we have the power to prevent.”
No other president has ever mentioned Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid in an Inaugural Address. Not even FDR or LBJ — the chief architects of the social safety net — ever mentioned these kinds of initiatives in their Inaugural Addresses (Roosevelt promised to provide jobs through public infrastructure projects and Johnson called for an end to poverty, but neither of them ever mentioned social insurance programs). Nor did fellow Democrat Bill Clinton ever talk about these programs; the only time he addressed entitlements at all during an Inaugural Address was in 1997 when he heralded his overhaul of the welfare system.
None of which, by the way, makes Obama our most liberal president. It may make him liberalism’s best spokesperson, though. While many of Obama’s Democratic predecessors have gone further than he in actually building a social safety net, none of them have found it an uplifting enough topic to mention in an Inaugural Address. And why would they? Providing for the needy is kind of a downer. Necessary, perhaps, but definitely not inspiring – not the stuff of Inaugural Addresses. On Monday, though, Obama articulated a very different liberal vision: one that embraces the social safety net not only as a benefit to the poor, the elderly, the disabled, but also as the security that all of us require to take risks and pursue our individual dreams.