In monarchies, kings and queens use the first person plural. They are "we."
Judging from his inaugural address, President Barack Obama may give this practice a modern American liberal twist. He calls big government "we."
Obama’s speech was a carefully crafted self-contradiction, with a beginning and end that could have been delivered by a conservative and a middle that envisioned government unleashed from constitutional restraints.
At the beginning, Obama celebrated the risk-taking, pioneering spirit, the ethic of individual initiative and self-reliance that made America great.
"In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned," he said. "Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted, for those who prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom."
At the end, Obama invoked God and freedom.
"Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end," he said, "that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."
Who could argue with that?
Well, presumably the "nonbelievers" to whom Obama paid tribute in the heart of his speech.
It was in that part — after he celebrated the risk-taking makers of things and before he saw God’s grace shining down on the carriers-forth of freedom — that Obama proposed a list of things "we" are going to do.
In fact, the defining passage of Obama’s speech included a "we" in every sentence, and it was soon apparent that he was not talking about "We the People" but "we the government."
"For everywhere we look, there is work to be done," he said. "The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do."
Any doubt that Obama was talking about "we the government" doing each of those things or compelling others to do them was settled a few sentences later, when he declared a premature victory in the debate over the legitimate role of government in our lives.
"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply," he said. "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified."
Here Obama contradicted the risk-takers-and-makers rhetoric from the beginning of his speech, just as his invocation of God’s grace at the end contradicted his declaration in the middle that "we are a nation of … nonbelievers."
At the beginning of his speech, Obama said, "We the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents."
But even as his oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States" faded into the winter air, he rejected any limit on government other than "whether it works."
If President Obama were to go back and read the founding document whose first three words are "We the People," he would discover that from beginning to end, it limits the power of government.
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