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How will Obama's liberalism shape America?

The answer lies in understanding the three waves of liberalism in America's past.

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His landmark speech on race managed to divorce him from the worst of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's fulminations, without quite repudiating the most pernicious of Mr. Wright's assumptions, namely, that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were, at least originally, racist documents.

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Obama's religious rhetoric

On such issues Obama's best defense is a good offense, and he will doubtless continue therefore to celebrate the importance of religion in his life and in the country's, and to praise America's founders and heroes.

On Jan. 20, from the Capitol's west steps he proclaimed, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers." But he also invoked God five times and Scripture once. The multicultural reflex cannot be banished, but Obama clearly intends to speak in the name of religion. He does not want to leave a naked public square into which only conservative faiths and believers may stroll.

This determination will make for awkward moments: Are all those faiths equally constitutive of American mores? Whose scripture is being consulted here? (His inaugural cited First Corinthians 13:11.) Nonetheless, he is keen for liberalism to become a firm ally of American religiosity, especially insofar as churches are willing to preach a new social gospel devoted to improving the lives of people in this world and around the globe.

The patriotic theme, so prominent in his inaugural, is Obama's reply to the anti-Americanism of the cultural and academic left, those last redoubts of the radical '60s. If he is persuasive, over time he may well heal the worst of the Democratic Party's self-inflicted wounds and prepare it to be the defender of "our better history," as he put it.

A lasting Democratic majority

His ambitions are clear: The speech was a pastiche of themes adapted from FDR and Ronald Reagan, the last two presidents to pull off major electoral realignments (less enduring in Reagan's case). What Obama hopes for is a similar breakthrough for the forces of liberalism in this generation.

An enduring Democratic majority is not out of the question. The wild scramble to stop the economic and financial downturn may well leave America with a politically controlled economy that would corrupt the relationship between citizens and the federal government – sapping entrepreneurship and encouraging new forms of dependence on the state, as in much of Europe. That would be consistent with the more socialized democracy that liberalism has been striving for ever since the Progressive Era.

Obama likes to emphasize that America is more like the world than we realize, and must become still more like it if the US is to remain the world's leader. Despite his summoning oratory, his sense of American exceptionalism thus is far less lofty, far more constrained, than Reagan's or FDR's. The greatest stumbling block to Obama's ambition is likely to be the inability of this exceptional president to persuade Americans to follow him into so unexceptional a future.

Charles R. Kesler is a senior fellow at The Claremont Institute, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, and a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.