THE BLOG
01/14/2013 05:43 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

To President Obama, With Hope

Mr. President, you have been described by some thoughtful commentators as our most profoundly literary president since Mr. Lincoln. Your prose does the work of poetry. At its best, it inspires and paints pictures of the possible. I know that you are preparing for your second inaugural address. I have read that you have excellent speechwriters with whom you partner to craft the right messages for the nation. But I know that you alone, as author and president, will decide what you will say to an anxious nation and a curious world on that chilly day.

You, sir, have the potential to offer to us and to bequeath to posterity an address as beautiful as Mr. Lincoln's second inaugural address delivered on March 4, 1865. I wrestle mightily with Lincoln's legacy as the so-called "Great Emancipator." But his command of language is indisputable. Lincoln's second inaugural was essentially public theology. I marvel at his lucidity and his refusal to speak unto the people "smooth things." Said Mr. Lincoln on that day,

Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'

These were difficult words for a nation torn by the evils of human bondage and civil war to hear. But what if they had not been uttered?

President Kennedy called Ted Sorenson his "intellectual blood bank." Mr. Kennedy found in Ted Sorenson a partner and a trusted aide who understood his politics, his thought process, and his hopes for the nation. Ted Sorenson helped Mr. Kennedy to craft this memorable exhortation for his inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." These words have been credited with calling many into public service. But what if they had not been uttered?

So, Mr. President, yours is a gargantuan rhetorical dilemma. You must speak hard truths like Mr. Lincoln while inspiring the citizenry like Mr. Kennedy. You must name the historical moment for what it is and cast a compelling vision for a future that beckons us forward together. There are some words that I pray that you might speak; some policies that I pray will have priority in your next administration. You have millions of people offering you unsolicited advice. Please indulge me and allow this preacher to be numbered among them.

Mr. President, poverty in America is a disgrace. And the number of children in poverty is abhorrent. I know that you share this sentiment. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans live in poverty. That is 15 percent of the population. Roughly 20 percent of American children are poor. We should not play politics with poverty. We should agree that sound public policy can reduce poverty. May I suggest the following words, Mr. President?

"The number of poor people and poor families in America is unacceptable. The number of poor children in our wealthy nation is appalling. They live in Democratic congressional districts and Republican congressional districts. They struggle to find jobs and to buy food for their families in red states and blue states. They look like my children and they look like your children. As president, I will not be satisfied with Sasha and Malia having food to eat while other American children go hungry. I will not be satisfied with Sasha and Malia having safe housing while other American children are homeless. Let us resolve to fight poverty and homelessness with the same determination with which have fought terror for the last decade!"

Mr. President, education in America is not what it ought to be. Teachers seem to be blamed for the problems in American schools instead of being encouraged and compensated as the trained professionals that they are. Those with means send their children to private schools or they move to neighborhoods where public schools are indistinguishable from private ones. Many policy-makers have essentially abandoned public education causing some of our public schools to become bastions of concentrated poverty and educational mediocrity. An abundance of racial, economic, sociological, and familial realities contribute to the challenges of public education in our nation. But can't we all agree that every American child deserves an excellent education? May I suggest the following words, Mr. President?

"American public education has produced many of our greatest leaders and citizens. These women and men were nurtured by excellent educators who helped them to think critically, to appreciate the beauty and mystery of the natural world and human creativity, and to prepare themselves to serve others. Public education is at a crossroads in the 21st century. Will we continue to use methods developed in the agrarian age in the information age? Will we be satisfied with children of means having the best opportunities while other children grasp, often in vain, for the one thing that changes generational destinies -- an excellent education? I propose that we work together to ensure that every school on every block in every city in every state in the union has excellent human resources and sufficient financial resources for America to lead the world again in educating the next generation!"

I could say more, Mr. President. But I have said enough. What is more important is that you say words that challenge us like Lincoln and inspire us like Kennedy. And when it is all said and done; when unborn historians cast a critical gaze at your rhetoric and your work, may it be said that the words of your second inaugural address were beautiful, but the work of your second administration made America a more just nation and the world a more peaceful place. God bless you, Mr. President.

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