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March 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 9

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The Second Inaugural Address and
the Future of Constitutional Limited Government


by John Hendrickson



President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address was a statement which outlined his continued push for a progressive transformation of the nation. In his address, President Obama referenced the Declaration of Independence and the values of the American Founding, but at the same time he advanced the progressive/liberal philosophy that the principles of the American Founding must be updated to meet the demands of the 21st century. The idea of constitutional limited government as designed by the Founding Fathers is the most fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals, and it is this philosophical battle which will eventually determine the direction of our republic.


President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address was heralded as a forceful message of progressivism. The President argued the notion that “we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”[1] This statement echoed President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also argued that traditional limited government was obsolete.


In his Commonwealth Club address of 1932, Roosevelt stated:


The task of statesmanship has always been the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order. New conditions impose new requirements upon Government and those who conduct Government.[2]


Roosevelt also argued that “the day of enlightened administration has come.”[3] The New Deal, which became the Roosevelt policy program, built upon the progressive foundations of former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. This idea was centered on the argument that an industrial economy could not be governed by traditional limited-government principles and the Constitution would “evolve” to meet the standards of a new society. The New Deal, along with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, established the modern welfare and regulatory state which President Obama seeks to expand.


President Obama’s first term was marked by transformational policy, namely with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the numerous regulatory policies. In addition, Democrats are arguing that they inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, but after four years and record levels of spending, unemployment remains high and the economy is still on life support.


Perhaps the most significant issue that confronts the nation is the fiscal crisis, symbolized by our national debt of $16.4 trillion and our annual trillion-dollar deficits. This does not include the trillions of dollars in unfunded entitlement liabilities and the increasing costs of the Affordable Care Act. President Obama has added $6 trillion to the national debt just in his first term.[4]


Charles Krauthammer, who described the President’s Inaugural as “a paean to big government” and a “pledge to defend unyieldingly the 20th-century welfare state and expand it unrelentingly for the 21st,” wrote:


Obama is the apostle of the ever-expanding state. His speech was an ode to the collectivity. But by that he means only government, not the myriad of voluntary associations — religious, cultural, charitable, artistic, advocacy, ad infinitum — that are the glory of the American system.[5]


Larry Kudlow, who served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, argued that the “collectivist” philosophy of the Inaugural Address is in direct opposition to the Founding:


The ‘collective’ is a socialist idea, not a free-market capitalist thought. And the story of the last quarter of the 20th century was of the absolute breakdown and end of the collectivist model. Collectivism was thrown into the dustbin of history by the weight of its own failure. To me, Obama’s mistaken opinions regarding the Declaration of Independence, and his total lack of understanding of the thinking behind the Declaration, is more troubling than any of the liberal programmatic proposals he set forth. Fundamentally, you have to wonder if the president really understands the American idea, and the American historical experience, beginning with the great wisdom of the Founders.[6]


It is clear that President Obama’s philosophy is moving the nation away from traditional limited government. It is clear that the policy problems, especially the fiscal crisis, confronting the nation can only be solved by returning back to constitutional principles. “In America, of course, the founding is determinative, and the Constitution stands at the very center of American political conservatism,” wrote historian Stephen J. Tonsor.[7] What is needed today is not transformation, but stability represented by conservative constitutional principles. As columnist Patrick J. Buchanan warned, “as Obama’s America rises, the old republic falls.”[8]


[1] Barack Obama, “Inaugural Address,” January 21, 2013, The American Presidency Project, <> accessed on February 8, 2013.
[2] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Commonwealth Club Address, September 23, 1932, Teaching American, <> accessed on February 8, 2013.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Larry Kudlow, Without deep spending cuts, the Republicans lose the House in 2014,” National Review Online, January 18, 2013, <> accessed on January 28, 2013.
[5] Charles Krauthammer, “Obama: Reagan of the Left,” National Review Online, January 24, 2013, <> accessed on January 28, 2013.
[6] Larry Kudlow, “Obama’s Declaration of Collectivism,” National Review Online, January 25, 2013, <> accessed on February 11, 2013.
[7] Stephen J. Tonsor, “How does the past become the future?” in Gregory L. Scheider (ed.), Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2005, p. 244.
[8] Patrick J. Buchanan, “The old republic and Obama’s America,” Creators Syndicate, January 25, 2013, <> accessed on February 11, 2013.


John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact him at

Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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