President Obama’s inaugural speech put aside America’s highly vaunted individualism and instead appealed to the nation’s kinder and more socially conscious instincts.
“This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience,” the president said of the past dozen years. “A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.
“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it…
“We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship….
“We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher…
“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few… 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.
“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 is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks...
“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war...
“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…”
The president went on to identify equal pay for women as an issue of equality that still needs to be resolved; as well as equal rights for immigrants; and equal protections for the right to vote in a fair and just system. Most notably, he was the first president to specifically mention gays in his speech and he did so eloquently: “For our journey is not complete,” he said, “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.”
It was a speech that rejected those loosely defined ideas first set in motion by President Ronald Reagan that tore at the heart of a collective nation: forthright attacks on government and the safety net (particularly welfare), and he championed the notion that tax cuts to the wealthy would benefit all through, what George H. Bush would later call “voodoo economics” and what became known as trickle-down economics. The senior Bush was right. It was hocus-pocus the first time and became even worse when applied during the eight years while George W. Bush was president.
To that end, President Obama’s speech represents a sea change in the national psyche.
As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson wrote Wednesday, “The Obama Majority — its existence and mobilization — is what enabled the president to deliver so ideological an address. No such inaugural speech has been delivered since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, demanding the curtailment of government programs and secure in the knowledge that much of the white working class had shifted its allegiance away from the Democrats and supported his attack on the public sector and minority rights.On Monday, Obama, secure in the knowledge that the nation’s minorities had joined with other liberal constituencies to form a new governing coalition, voiced their demands to ensure equality and to preserve and expand the government’s efforts to meet the nation’s challenges...”
Said the president in his speech, as he reflected on America’s past:
“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.
“Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character… But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action….”
To put a cap on his speech, he seemed prepared to take on Congress as leader of the nation, not as compromiser-in-chief, as he did in his first term. It was that challenge to conservatives that gives hope over the next four years: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-old debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time,” the president said. “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...”
Angelo S. Lynn