01/21/2013 05:00 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2013

The Second Act (of a Nation)

President Barack Obama's Second Inaugural Address was a speech delivered by a man entering a room confidently, betting that the door he is pushing swings one way. It was a speech attempting to redefine "We the People" for what we intuitively know the term to encompass: gays and lesbians. Blacks, whites, the destitute. Immigrants. And the locked-out of every stripe. The president had the temerity to name the unnamable. The people and parts of the country that have never come up in so many prior inaugurals. Detroit? Yes, Detroit.

And there were great lines and better sentiments.

Some truths may be self-evident, but not self-fulfilling, the president insisted. Seeing and ending climate change are two very different things. And there were calls for respect for the social welfare commitments the nation has made since FDR; commitments that strengthen who we are, rather than weaken us. The nation on the whole, believes him.

The president seemed to get over his aversion to chiastic and "speechifying" rhetoric and delivered, hark -- a speech. Which is to say, he determined he had to not merely make an argument, he had to sing it. For an otherwise stylish man, this president eschews stylized phrasing. But he's made up his mind the door swings one way. It isn't a swinging door. Four years ago, the thought was one of trepidation. Today, it is clear, the president believes there is no going back. And there's his freedom.

Weirdly, there is something alarming in our system of practiced government to hear the president say that we no longer "require perpetual war." Who could argue against that? Well, nearly every year of American history has argued against that. Maybe, this door can be sealed shut, the president seemed to suggest. But there isn't an American alive that knows what that country looks like. Warless? That is the America of our imagination.

The president walked the nation through its history as he so often does. It was not a classic speech. But it was a word "fitly spoken" and delivered at this hinge moment in the nation's politics. The speech was more like a living, breathing time-capsule -- an ode to where we're going. To that extent it was bold and presumptive. The president has bet on his own patience, waiting to match the shifts in popular support for this new America.

The president's long wait is over. His chorus of martyred and otherwise warrior-saints from Seneca Falls to the Widow of Medgar Evers -- these departed -- wound the clock of progress for him. His speech was the strike at 12.

It was a speech for a new day, perhaps not one for the ages -- but for those hallowed, undefined years to come.

Saladin M. Ambar teaches American politics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. He is the author of How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) and the forthcoming Malcolm X at Oxford Union (Oxford University Press, 2014).