WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, delivered on a crisp, overcast day at the nation’s capital, was an unapologetic one.
The president, who has spent the first four years navigating Washington as much as shaping it, used his platform on Monday to announce that his next four years will be marked by a more assertive approach. The speech wasn't devoid of the classic, Obama-esque ideal that the country itself, and the two political parties in particular, must come together for the common good. But the appeal he made wasn’t so much to the good nature of each individual lawmaker as it was to the need to confront the severity of the issues at hand.
The president talked about protecting entitlement programs upon which the elderly and the most vulnerable in society depend.
“They do not make us a nation of takers,” he declared, in a clear rebuke to the conservative House Republicans that have been his bête noire. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.
But Obama also gave a nod to items further down on the conventional list of top priorities: climate change and election reform included.
The underlying theme was altogether consistent: it is time for the country's reasonable majority to wrest back the agenda.
For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
What the administration now confronts is the issue of legacy. The accomplishments of the first term have given Obama an already exalted status among his base. But inside the White House, there is a tangible sense of hope (and, perhaps, a bit of trepidation) about what’s to come. Immigration reform, the ending of the war in Afghanistan, the protection of gay rights, the passage of gun laws, the execution of health care and banking reform, and the revamping of the tax code and social safety net are all on the docket. The means of addressing them is the great unknown.
What Monday’s speech did, more than anything else, is provide a window into those means. This isn’t the same Obama who, upon coming into office amid an economic crisis, called for an end to the politics of division. It was a more jaded, ostensibly realistic Obama, demanding that divided politics no longer be used as an excuse for inaction and promising to not accept such a cynical status quo.
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 have never been self-executing.
The president’s supporters and even casual defenders will, undoubtedly, cheer this second inaugural address in a way that they never fully did the first -- a lofty, historic but somewhat unmemorable speech. His critics will take it as affirmation of a liberal agenda that they’ve often warned is coming once the burdens of reelection are gone.
Those reactions are predictable and, ultimately, disposable. What matters more is the extent to which the president acts upon the vision he outlined. The second inaugural address showcased an unapologetic president. Time will tell if Monday was just a few lines in a speech or a new, dedicated mindset for the nation's leader.