Practically progressive: a reflection on the inaugural address


Whenever I see our flag waving in the wind, I feel a deep stirring within my soul—a longing to see something I care about so deeply to prosper. When I stand in a crowd of people whose looks and personalities span the rainbow, I feel an immense sense of unity and pride.

When I am able to walk down the streets of New York City, confident that this is no longer the violent city it was a generation ago, I witness a positive effect legislation has had on our community.

When I get in my car to drive to work, I remind myself that, as a woman, this liberty to be a paid employee was not always a universally embraced concept.

President Obama's inaugural speech contained traces of progressivism, causing some listeners to question the direction in which the country is headed.

So as I  listened to President Obama give his inauguration speech, I wanted to be in that moment; I wanted to be “born for that moment,” and I wanted my heart to swell with the pride and knowledge that my country would be led to better days because my president has my country’s best interests at heart.

I wanted to believe that equality, liberty and all the fruits of happiness can manifest on earth and in my lifetime. And even if I cannot hope that all these ideals will manifest in my lifetime, I wanted at least to believe that there is still a good reason to work toward them so that a future generation may reap those rewards, even if mine may not.

But my longing for a belief does not change what I see around me.

When I wrote in defense of progressivism four years ago, “Today, we send our children to school, confident that they will return,” I did not know that my own words would prove ominous. I did not know then that those who live long enough are not progressives.

And when I hear President Obama say that we need government to educate, build and network, but that we also need to cut government spending, I am not confident that either of these goal will be met, let alone both.

When I hear President Obama speak of the glories of Medicare, I can only think of the doctors—private practitioners—who are refusing to see patients under government subsidized insurance.

And when I hear the concern about climate change while we are not, as Obama says, confident that this condition exists, I am doubting if environmental relief is the best place to invest our limited fiscal resources.

When I hear him say that a free market only thrives under regulation, I am less hopeful for our economy’s revival.

When I hear President Obama say, “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” I am nervous because that term—“collective action”—is ambiguous. If collective action means that I will pay for extended unemployment benefits, and that an additional two percent of my paycheck will cover my inability to choose health insurance, then I am not a proponent of collective action.

I am not a supporter of a nation that rewards "efforts" and "determination," as Obama is; I am a supporter of a nation that rewards success and performance, because those are the proper ends of efforts and determination. And I expect my president, as the leader of our free nation, to want to protect that freedom not simply for us but for our children.

So when President Obama says, “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,” I am not convinced that action is more important than reflection. Our Founding Fathers knew a considerable amount about reflection and set out to create the best possible form of government that praised good and punished evil. Progress compels me to grapple with those founding principles that shaped America.

I have to wonder if our generation’s task is to "make"--as Obama says--life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness “real for every American,” or if it is to create opportunity so that every American can pursue life, liberty and happiness. I have to wonder if the difference between action and allowing action is the difference between privilege and freedom.

When President Obama says that we have an “obligation to shape the debates of our time--not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals,” I find myself agreeing with this principle but disagreeing with everything he previously said about the road to fulfilling those obligations. Will everyone who hears him distinguish between the end and his proposed means?

But I must believe that, though better days can and hopefully will come, I must prepare myself for the error of our nation’s leaders, and I must not place all my hope in an institution that wishes to define the world around me.  Though I may be the product of progress and liberation, I do not wish to be the victim of collectivism and romanticism.