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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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