The meaning of Obama's speech has been covered by many, of course; some particularly worthwhile analyses are here, here, here, and here. Now, at National Review Online Michael Auslin has posted a particularly trenchant commentary (link), excerpted here, that to me gets at the root of the matter:
Perhaps the keynote of Obama’s second inaugural address, the Magna Carta of the new liberalism, is this line: “Preserving our individual freedom ultimately requires collective action.” The line was certainly banal, as well as Orwellian. But it would be a mistake to ignore it as a rhetorical weapon. What Obama hopes to achieve, above and beyond his policy goals, is to move American society to a point where he won’t even have to give lip service to concepts such as “individual freedom,” at least when talking about his statist agenda. Today, he must still use such traditional American concepts, must still appeal to what one hopes is deeply rooted in our national psyche.... While he was certainly more unbound in his second inaugural, ... one can see where he is still constrained, perhaps by an understanding (distasteful to him, no doubt) as to how far he can push without stirring some deeper unease among even those sympathetic to his less far-reaching goals.
But this is clearly a gambit to shift the country’s political philosophy ... by utilizing the vital role of rhetoric. Changing how we talk is a prerequisite to changing how we think, shaping reality through our words. Over the next four years, how far will Obama, with the support of the media, universities, and popular culture, have succeeding in changing forever our national rhetoric, where the liberal statist conception of the American collectivity supplants our timeless appeal to individual freedom?
[Obama’s] thrust to more subtly shift how we think of ourselves and our relation to the state is a necessary ingredient for softening current and future opposition to the expansion of government and the dependency society. Even more insidiously, it is a bid to redefine the American character, from which all else flows.John M Greco