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President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address: A heartening, uplifting call for progress

Four years ago, I stood on the National Mall in our nation’s capital and witnessed the swearing-in of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth President of the United States of America. It was a historic day – a happy and joyous day that offered a welcome respite from weeks of bad economic news and feelings of uncertainty.

Nearly two million people stood shoulder to shoulder that cold January morning, waiting for our nation’s first black president take the oath and deliver his first inaugural address. As noon came and went, the realization hit home for me and others standing on the Mall: The Bush error was finally at an end. A new era had begun. A new chapter in our nation’s history was about to be written.

When President Obama stepped to the microphone that day four years ago to deliver his first inaugural address, he seemed mindful of his new and enormous responsibilities. He immediately assumed the role of Reassurer-in-Chief, reminding us that America has been through tough times before, and has come out ahead.

I especially remember these words: “Today, I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.”

Four years later, those words carry even greater significance and meaning than they did then, considering what has transpired in the time between the President’s First Inaugural Address and his Second today. Though Barack Obama repeatedly called for unity and cooperation as a candidate, as President-elect, and finally as President, his efforts to find common ground were stymied from the beginning by Republicans, who spurned his overtures and wasted little time in declaring that their top priority was his defeat – not the country’s well-being.

No president has governed without opposition, but few presidents have had to deal with the kind of disloyal, knee-jerk obstructionism that Barack Obama has faced from Republicans in Congress, not to mention the Republican Party and its hate speech fueled noise machine outside of Congress.

The President enters his second term older and wiser. Four years ago, the President did not initially appreciate that Republicans were simply not interested in working with him to solve America’s problems. He tried many times to be accommodating, and as a consequence, he ended up negotiating from a position of weakness when he could have been negotiating from a position of strength.

In his First Inaugural Address, the President spoke of America as on a journey. (All emphasis in the following excerpt and the other excepts in this post is mine).

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that 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.

He went on to say:

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week, or last month, or last year.  Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.  Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

Four years later, we can say that we have begun that work of remaking America. But unpleasant decisions continue to be put off, and narrow interests continue to be protected… most recently in the legislation the President signed to extend the Bush tax cuts for all but the wealthiest Americans. Old habits die hard, as the saying goes, and the same could be said of old politics.

President Obama returned to his This is the journey we continue today metaphor for his Second Inaugural Address, a speech that I very much enjoyed and that I hope serves as a harbinger of things to come. I felt it was heartening and uplifting; the President skillfully avoided sounding lofty or grandiose. The President made the most of an opportunity to set a new tone for a new term, and he embraced the logic of progressive values at several key points in the speech. He began with a nod to our founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution:

Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.

And then he reminded us that, as a nation, we have often had to confront adversity and prejudice in attempting to live up to our ideals.

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers.

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

The strength of this country, the United States of America, stems from our ability to do great things together, as the President said. Cooperation trumps competition. Had the thirteen colonies that broke away from Great Britain ceased to remain united following the War of Independence, this country, as we know it, would not and could not exist today. And had Abraham Lincoln not succeeded in holding the Union together, our nation might well have continued to splinter and fragment, and the evil institution of slavery would not have been abolished when it needed to be.

I felt the speech hit three really high notes, twice midway through and once again at the end. The first passage that resonated deeply with me was a defense of our nation’s essential public services – specifically Social Security and Medicare – which the President laudably framed as commitments.

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 second passage that made me cheer was the President’s call for action on the climate crisis – a threat humanity has so far failed to meaningfully address.

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

And the third passage that hit home for me was the President’s call for all of us to leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren, befitting of the legacy that was left to us by previous generations of Americans.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law –- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity — until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

Linguistically and metaphorically, President Obama could have gone in a completely different direction with his Second Inaugural Address, but he chose to build upon – rather than depart from – the foundation he created with his First Inaugural Address four years ago. Today’s speech felt very much like a sequel to what I heard four years ago. It was reinforcing and reassuring.

America is on a journey… a never-ending journey, a difficult journey with unforeseen twists and turns, but a journey we are nevertheless bound to continue, for our journey is not complete until our country fully embodies our finest traditional values… the very best of who we are. That seemed to me to be the crux of what the President was saying today. We can either go forward or backward, and we certainly don’t want to go back. So the only direction to go is forward.

Or, as George Lakoff put it six years ago when he wrote Whose Freedom?

Progressive freedom is dynamic freedom. Freedom is realized not just in stasis, or at a single moment in history, but in its expansion over a long time. You cannot look only at the Founding Fathers and stop there. If you do, it sounds as if they were hypocrites: They talked liberty but permitted slavery; they talked democracy but allowed only white male property owners to vote. But from a dynamic progressive perspective, the great ideas were expandable freedoms: expanding civil rights, voting rights, property rights, tolerance, education, science, public health, workers’ rights, protected parkland, and the infrastructure for progressive freedom — the banking system, court system, transportation system, communication system, university system, scientific research system, social services system, and all the other aspects of the common good that we use our common wealth for. Expanding and deepening the ideas of the Founding Fathers is what dynamic progressive freedom is about.

Progressives don’t look backward to before these freedoms were extended to some “original” nascent idea frozen in time, and they don’t work to reverse these freedoms as radical conservatives do. As times change, freedoms must expand — or they will contract. Freedom doesn’t stand still. Radical conservatives are not going away. If progressives do not keep expanding American freedoms, radical conservatives will contract them.

Those of us who truly believe in the idea of a more perfect union must lead the way forward so that American freedoms are expanded, not contracted. We are called to be men and women of action. That’s what it means to be an activist.

Leadership is about being in the vanguard. It’s about taking communities… and cities… and counties… and states… and a country… to new heights. Setting a good example for our world. For humanity. It is difficult, tiring, and often thankless work. But it is important work. It makes a difference.

It is on occasions like today that we get to see President Obama doing what he does best: Inspiring us to believe that meaningful progressive change is possible and attainable. Now, it’s true that President Obama is not the progressive champion that some activists anticipated he would be (or perhaps imagined that he would be) to be during his first presidential campaign. He did not govern as a true and fully committed progressive would govern during his first term.

But his most deeply held values are progressive, and that is evident from his oratory. When the President delivers a speech rooted in the logic of progressive values like he did today, before a large audience (millions of people watched this speech!), he is advancing the causes we here at NPI hold dear by encouraging people to think progressively — to think with a progressive mindset.

We at NPI have disagreed with President Obama on many occasions these past four years. We feel, for instance, that the President was wrong to overrule EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s efforts to strengthen air quality standards and expand environmental freedom. We believe the President should have sought authorization from Congress to intervene in Libya. And while we are glad that the President renounced torture prior to taking office and again after doing so, we remain disappointed that he did not act to hold his predecessor and his predecessor’s appointees accountable for having eroded and violated our civil liberties.

Four years ago, as the Bush error ended, we had high hopes and high expectations for Barack Obama’s presidency. Four years of knee-jerk, practically unyielding obstructionism from Republicans have tempered our expectations for a second term. The House remains controlled by Republicans thanks in part to gerrymandering, and prospects for advancing legislation like the DREAM Act or the DISCLOSE Act there seem pretty dim.

But President Obama does have the opportunity to help Nancy Pelosi rebuild a Democratic majority in the U.S. House over the next two years if he chooses. Senate Democrats just proved that a tough map need not be a barrier to electoral success. And, having had to deal with a hostile House for two years, the President knows what to expect over the course of the next twenty-four months, which is a good thing. So do his supporters: Bountiful idealism seems to have been replaced, to a degree, by sober realism. (Idealism mixed with realism yields pragmatism!)

In retrospect, the President’s first term accomplishments don’t seem as small as we might think. No, the Patient Protection Act didn’t get us as close to Medicare for All as it should have, and no, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act did not provide for the level of public investment our country needed to confidently and expeditiously shake free of the grip of a deep recession.

But that legislation still represents meaningful progress.

And let’s not forget the rescue of the automotive industry, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the passage of the New START treaty, the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (which created Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) or the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010.

Much of the good legislation enacted in President Obama’s first term made it to his desk during the first two years of his presidency. The final two years of his presidency could turn out to be equally productive, if the President lends his voice to filibuster reform, rallies his party to reclaim the U.S. House in 2014, and assists Michael Bennet in building an even stronger majority in the U.S. Senate.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that an incumbent president’s party doesn’t usually do well in midterm elections. But there’s nothing more fun and more satisfying than turning conventional wisdom on its head. Judging from the reaction of some of The Washington Post’s columnists (who did not care for the President’s Second Inaugural Address), today’s speech was one for the ages.

Congratulations to Barack Obama and Joe Biden on this Inauguration Day 2013. Here’s to the next four years.