In His Inaugural Address, Obama Said a Mouthful

A lot is being made of President Obama’s shout out to older Americans, and to the programs that so many depend on, in his inaugural address. Here’s the 190-word passage:

“We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

The Washington Post‘s editorial board pointed to the passage as an example of how “Obama’s second inaugural address was such a departure from the soaring generalities of some predecessors’ speeches that at times it sounded as though he were still running against Mitt Romney.”

With his words, wrote Politico‘s David Nather, “Obama doubled down on the boundaries he has drawn in his fight with Republicans over the next stages of deficit reduction.”

And on The Apothecary blog, contributor Avik Roy took issue with one premise of Obama’s text, arguing that “Obama’s policy legacy is that future generations of Americans will fight each other for access to scarcer and costlier health-care resources.”

All or none of those analyses may have merit. But for me, Obama’s words take on most significance when compared with the attention his predecessors paid older Americans in their inaugural addresses.

My colleague Bill Hogan searched inaugural addresses since 1961 for any remarks that could be construed as direct references to older Americans or comments on issues of special importance to them. You can read virtually everything he found in the captions of this stunning slide show.

Let me summarize the findings.

In his 1981 inaugural address, Ronald Reagan scorned how inflation “crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike.” That was it – but nonetheless he became the first president in at least the last 52 years to directly address older members of the audience.

And it seemed to inspire his successors. Every inaugural address since then has made some nod to seniors, save for Bill Clinton’s address in 1993. (Four years later Clinton promised “a nation where our grandparents have secure retirement and health care - and their grandchildren know we have made the reforms necessary to sustain those benefits for their time.”)

In the context of these other inaugural speeches, Obama made a singular effort to connect with a huge and growing older segment of America’s population. He offered an elegant reminder of why we have a safety net. He made the nation think better of itself for guaranteeing a measure of security and dignity for all. And he passionately defended the programs behind that guarantee: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

How will those words translate into action? Will the president more fully detail his plans and approach for those programs in his State of Union address next month? In the coming budget and debt debates, will he and Congress find ways to keep the safety net strong?

The generation that built this country and the generation that will build its future would do well to pay close attention.

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Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert