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Our task: Making founders’ values real

President connects progressive policies to bedrock principles

“You didn’t build that” temporarily threw a wrench in President Obama’s reelection efforts, but that didn’t stop him from pounding that same message in his second inaugural address on Monday.

In July 2012, candidate Obama’s “you didn’t build that” phrase was taken out of context to suggest that Obama didn’t appreciate the power of individual risk-taking and work ethic. In fact, Obama was saying that a business owner’s success comes in part because of public investments in things such as highways, teachers, police and the Internet. “The point is,” Obama said at the time, “that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

The president returned to the theme Monday, declaring that living up to America’s founding principles requires more than every-man-for-himself. It requires consistent determination over the generations to make reality more closely match the self-evident truths laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

Obama reminded Americans that the country is not living up to its creed – that all people are created equal – when many millions are deprived of real opportunity because of the circumstances of their birth.

“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” Obama said. He called for “a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American,” and rejected the idea that “freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.”

For several years now, tea party conservatives have laid claim to the Founding Fathers’ legacy, emphasizing that their small-government philosophy best matches that of founders who fought to escape tyranny. Obama on Monday showed that a progressive approach can be every bit as consistent with that founding philosophy. After all, the founders established a strong central government responsive to the consent of the governed, and aspired to equity of opportunity.

The president spelled out a liberal agenda for his second term, and his long list included protecting entitlements, responding to climate change, leading the world toward sustainable energy, securing full equal rights for gays, reforming immigration and strengthening gun control.

Obama failed to take advantage of Monday’s platform to signal any intention to put the nation back on sound fiscal footing, and we worry that he is more interested in protecting entitlements from cuts than in reforming them in a way that sustains them for generations to come. Perhaps his State of the Union speech next month will dig deeper into those weeds.

An inaugural speech, though, is supposed to be more visionary than prescriptive. And Obama laid out a compelling vision.

“That is our generation’s task,” Obama said, “to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.”

Maybe we can look back some day and say “we built that.”

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