Essay: Obama's vision for post-boomer politics

Inaugural Addresses can't be judged right away: Like recipes, their greatness depends on how things turn out. If Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to save the economy had failed, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" would sound today like a plutocrat's callow attempt to make poor people forget their hunger. The rush to judge Barack Obama's Inaugural Address seems more premature than most. It's true that he didn't wow the crowd as he's done in the past. He aimed instead for something quieter and less immediate, but potentially more lasting: to describe a new kind of politics, which is really an old kind of politics. We've seen plenty of incoming presidents mouth phrases like these, of course. But Obama might, you know, mean it. If, like FDR, he makes good on what he's told us, the speech could one day be celebrated as the overture for a new era.

When Obama proclaimed "an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics," many people assumed he was sticking it to the ex-president sitting six feet away. That's true, but that's not all. The full expanse of his vision only becomes clear if we understand why he followed that indictment with the potent scriptural admonition "to put childish things aside." When he made a similar charge about the juvenilia of politics in his book "The Audacity of Hope," writing that government recently felt like a case of "arrested development," he made it clear that he didn't just mean George W. Bush. He named the Clinton-Gingrich battles of the '90s and both of Bush's elections as flare-ups in "the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation." Obama wasn't just dissing his predecessor in his speech—he was repudiating an entire approach to politics.

In its place, he offered a distinctive way of thinking about post-boomer government. Whatever else his address might have been, it was the furthest-reaching community-organizing speech in the history of community organizing. He celebrated those "who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom" and took a swipe at "those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame." If President Obama gets his way, we'll all be working more—and working harder—for causes greater than ourselves. Has anyone considered how tiring the next four years might be?

Plenty of presidents lately have celebrated shared service—Bill Clinton, in particular. But the approach Obama outlined in his speech went further than his recent predecessors. Service, he suggests, isn't an optional feature of national life, it's essential. We have "duties to ourselves, our nation and the world," he said, duties that constitute—a striking phrase—"the price and promise of citizenship." No president has offered such an active definition of being an American—one based on what you do, not who you are—since John F. Kennedy. "I do not shrink from this responsibility [of defending freedom]," JFK declared. "I welcome it."

Even after he's written two books, campaigned for two years and won a majority of our votes, Obama remains an enigma, a man who invites speculation because he's so difficult to pin down. When he talks about citizenship this way, he suggests that all the time we spend trying to place him on the left-right ideological spectrum is a waste. On subjects like this, he sounds like an emissary from a different spectrum altogether—a civic republican. The tradition emphasizing national duties, shared sacrifice and responsibilities over rights was important to the Founders, but has always been a tough sell in fiercely individualistic America. Never has it been tougher, in fact, than the period stretching from the radical '60s through the conservative era that elevated self-interest at every turn—a period matching exactly the baby boomers' prominence in national life.

You'd expect a leader with a civic republican streak to show a proper reverence for tradition, and President Obama certainly did in his address. The "values upon which our success depends," he said, are "honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism." ("These things are old," he noted, then delivered one of those unexpected grace notes that make his speeches sublime: "These things are true.") But how to balance this respect for enduring values with the progressive impulses that got him elected? His speech's finale offers a formula.

Surprisingly, he didn't turn to Lincoln or FDR to cap the address, but old carved-in-marble George Washington, who described a winter so brutal that only "hope and virtue" could survive. The reference to "hope" reminds us that Obama won because he embodies our dreams of a better future. "Virtue," a vital term in the civic republican vocabulary, is a more complicated case. The first nine presidents used it in an Inaugural Address, but since 1900, only a pair of old soldiers, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, have done so. If Obama rescues the economy, keeps us safe, binds us together, enlarges our freedom and also encourages us (as he said at the Commander in Chief Ball) to "demand not only more of our leaders, but more of ourselves," then four or eight years from now, you could do a lot worse than calling his presidency an era of Hope and Virtue.