There was no “malice toward none and charity for all,” as Lincoln stated; no “you have nothing to fear but fear itself,” which Roosevelt declared; and no “ask not what your country can do for you … ask what you can do for your country,” as JFK asserted, during President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address on Monday in the nation’s capital.
But there was his usual pragmatism that was laced with dollops of liberalism and the intertwining of historic milestones, particularly the sibilant alliteration of “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall,” conjuring the feminist movement of yore, the Civil Rights Movement and gay liberation, respectively.
He spoke passionately for nearly 20 minutes in the frosty air–which was nowhere as brutally cold as it was four years ago–about the need to be “together,” about “We, the people,” about the tasks before us and that “our journey is not complete.”
No, there was not one phrase or sentence that will stand the test of time like the comments made by the three presidents above, and we are left to believe that Obama will place his legacy on action, not unforgettable words.
“We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said toward the end of his speech. “We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”
Some Democrats probably cheered the sentence that preceded the above quote, when he seemingly put to rest the notion of expending too much political capital on bipartisanship and winning over recalcitrant Republicans.
“For now, decisions are upon us and we cannot afford to delay,” he said, emphasizing his theme of action. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” Not that he was completely innocent of these insinuations himself.
As if to make up for ignoring climate change during his campaign run and the presidential debates, he put the issue right at the crux of his address.
“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves,” Obama orated, “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.”
This point was given considerable attention, while he only gave a passing remark to gun control, unemployment, immigration and foreign policy. There was even an absence of words on the economy, though we can expect that will be covered sufficiently in his State of the Union address next month.
If there was one moment of noticeable uproar from the thousands crowding the National Mall, it occurred when he began to outline the ways in which the nation’s journey–as well as that undertaken by his administration–is far from complete.
“For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” he declared. This was perhaps a reminder of the Lilly Ledbetter Act that he enacted at the beginning of his first term. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”
His mention of “gay” was clearly a presidential first in this context. “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” he charged, his way of referencing the widespread voter suppression activity by elements of the Republican Party during the last election.
“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,” he said, which must have warmed the heart of the poet Richard Blanco, who is Latino and gay, and who delivered the inaugural poem.
Obama continued, saying, “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.”
Overall, it was classic Obama, not too far to the left, not too far to the right, but right down the middle of his typical American pragmatism. It is not only a predicable course, but one he feels most comfortable on as he guides the ship of state for the next four years.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident 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.”
Again, it was an Obama trait, preferring a metaphorical approach rather than a literal one when mentioning Dr. Martin Luther King. Regardless, he certainly could not ignore the historic convergence of their lives, right down to the Bible on which he took the oath. What goes around, comes around.