On Monday, January 21, 2013, President Obama articulated a clear version of the Story of America. Arguably, it is a brilliant articulation of the American social contract. It seems to me that much of the philosophical and historical parts could have been said by many of our past presidents. I was also surprised and delighted to hear him respond to a version of America once articulated Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural speech.
In some ways, there is a stark contrast between the America that Reagan envisioned and the America Obama envisions especially in regard to the role of government. In his first inaugural speech, Reagan famously said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem."
On Monday, President Obama said, "Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.
I do think Obama was responding to Reagan's vision, but not to tell Reagan that he was wrong, but to tell some of his Republican disciples of today who use Reagan's words and legacy that this version of America has become outdated — it just doesn't fit the times.
I personally don't think Reagan and Obama's visions are so wide apart. There are many things that Reagan and Obama's stories of America have in common.
Both versions are optimistic and assert the belief that America will meet the challenges of our time by acting now and together. These lines appear to be interchangeable to me:
Obama: My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together.
Reagan: It does require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together, with God's help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.
Obama: It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.
Reagan: We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow.
Obama: We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Reagan: All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.
Both Reagan and Obama quote Lincoln's famous phrase from the Gettysburg address, "government of the people, by the people, for the people."
Obama: The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few, or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people.
Reagan: From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people.
This is where there is real agreement between Reagan and Obama and perhaps among most Americans. In theory, we reject a government of, by, for the elite few. The problem is that governments tend to attract people who want personal power and forget that they are pledged to serve a government of, by, for the people.
Starting in 1981, Reagan was trying to do a course correction responding to what he and many considered to be a bureaucratic government run by a political elite class that had become out of touch with the people. Starting in 2009, Obama has been doing a course correction on a government that favored the financial elite and had become out of touch with the needs of the people going through a financial crisis.
If Reagan were alive today, I believe he would have responded negatively to the extremism of the anti-federalists of our time (people like Grover Norquist, Eric Cantor, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan). We can't function when we hate the federal government so much that we want to break its power by defunding it.
It seems to me that we would do well as Americans by focusing on fighting elitism, not fighting the very idea of a federal government and working to starve and drown it. If the federal government breaks, so does the government of, by, for the people, the very one that Lincoln said "shall not perish from the earth."