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Originally published January 22, 2013 at 4:27 PM | Page modified January 22, 2013 at 4:27 PM

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President Obama’s pragmatic progressivism

In his inaugural address, President Obama argued there has been too much “me” and not enough “us” in our politics, writes David Brooks. But the president ignored the decentralizing genius that has helped the nation prosper.

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The best inaugural addresses make an argument for something. President Barack Obama’s second one, which surely has to rank among the best of the past half-century, makes an argument for a pragmatic and patriotic progressivism.

His critics have sometimes accused him of being an outsider, but Obama wove his vision from deep strands in the nation’s past. He told an American story that began with the Declaration and then touched upon the railroad legislation, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the highway legislation, the Great Society, Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.

Turning to the present, Obama argued that America has to change its approach if it wants to continue its progress. Modern problems like globalization, technological change, widening inequality and wage stagnation compel us to take new collective measures if we’re to pursue the old goals of equality and opportunity.

Obama wasn’t explicit about why we have failed to meet these challenges. But his critique was implicit. There has been too much “me” — too much individualism and narcissism, too much retreating into the private sphere. There hasn’t been enough “us,” not enough communal action for the common good.

The president then described some of the places where collective action is necessary: to address global warming, to fortify the middle class, to defend Medicare and Social Security, to guarantee equal pay for women and equal rights for gays and lesbians.

During his first term, Obama was inhibited by his desire to be postpartisan, by the need to not offend the Republicans with whom he was negotiating. Now he is liberated. Now he has picked a team and put his liberalism on full display. He argued for it in a way that was unapologetic. Those who agree, those who disagree and those of us who partly agree now have to raise our game. We have to engage his core narrative and his core arguments for a collective turn.

I am not a liberal like Obama, so I was struck by what he left out in his tour through U.S. history. I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, but I’d also mention Wall Street, State Street, Menlo Park and Silicon Valley. I’d emphasize that America has prospered because we have a decentralizing genius.

When Europeans nationalized their religions, we decentralized and produced a great flowering of entrepreneurial denominations. When Europe organized state universities, our diverse communities organized private universities. When Europeans invested in national welfare states, American localities invested in human capital.

America’s greatest innovations and commercial blessings were unforeseen by those at the national headquarters. They emerged, bottom up, from tinkerers and business outsiders who could never have attracted the attention of a president or some public-private investment commission.

I would have been more respectful of this decentralizing genius than Obama was, more nervous about dismissing it for the sake of collective action, more concerned that centralization will lead to stultification, as it has in every other historic instance.

I also think Obama misunderstands this moment. The Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society laws were enacted when America was still a young and growing nation. They were enacted in a nation that was vibrant, raw, underinstitutionalized and needed taming.

We are no longer that nation. We are now a mature nation with an aging population. Far from being underinstitutionalized, we are bogged down with a bloated political system, a tangled tax code, a byzantine legal code and a crushing debt.

The task of reinvigorating a mature nation is fundamentally different from the task of civilizing a young and boisterous one. It does require some collective action: investing in human capital. But, in other areas, it also involves stripping away — streamlining the special-interest sinecures that have built up over the years and liberating private daring.

Reinvigorating a mature nation means using government to give people the tools to compete, but then opening up a wide field so they do so raucously and creatively. It means spending more here but deregulating more there. It means facing the fact that we do have to choose between the current benefits to seniors and investments in our future, and that to pretend we don’t face that choice, as Obama did, is effectively to sacrifice the future to the past.

Obama made his case beautifully. He came across as a prudent, nonpopulist progressive. But I’m not sure he rescrambled the debate. We still have one party that talks the language of government and one that talks the language of the market. We have no party that is comfortable with civil society, no party that understands the ways government and the market can both crush and nurture community, no party with new ideas about how these things might blend together.

But at least the debate is started. Maybe that new wind will come.

© , New York Times News Service

David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.

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