Barack Obama publicly swore his second oath of office on the Bibles of Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., using his inaugural address to chart the arc of our nation’s freedom struggles, from the war against slavery to the civil rights movements a century later. Obama traced that history in a remarkable soliloquy that celebrated and renewed one of our foundational civic creeds: “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; 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.”
With his shout-out to the 1969 Stonewall protests in New York City, where the gay rights movement burst forth, Obama went further than any president in the country’s history to complete a circle of inclusion. But Obama, often and appropriately criticized for his caution, did not end on that high note. The president linked the historical reference, the rhetorical flourish, with today’s struggles over specific issues, calling for pay equity for women, voting and election reform, respect for immigrants’ rights and—in a reference to the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown—for protecting children’s safety in a country awash in guns.
Obama did something else just as important. He reclaimed the politics and language of freedom from a market-worshiping, government-despising right wing that has been ascendant for a generation. Citing the great nation-building projects of the past, the president pointed out that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” He noted that “together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play…that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”
In other sections of the speech, he made references to the need to address climate change—an issue too long neglected by leaders of both parties—and to renewing our frayed commitment to education. There was also the vital recognition that poverty is a form of oppression, not a moral failing. Significantly, in a time of debate about the future of our collective commitment to those whose dreams have been so long deferred, Obama traced the arc from FDR and LBJ to today, defending Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid by pointing out that “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.”
That last line referred to the “makers versus takers” language of Congressional Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who, as his party’s vice presidential nominee, echoed Mitt Romney’s infamous claim that the 2012 election was a battle between an imagined majority and a dismissible 47 percent “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.”
As it happened, Romney and Ryan won just 47 percent of the vote on November 6. Barack Obama and Joe Biden won 51 percent, and with it a mandate that Obama finally seems willing to embrace. Barack Obama, who began his first term as a remarkably popular figure but was almost overwhelmed by the challenges left over from the failed presidency of George W. Bush, begins his second term as a confident leader. He knows well that he made mistakes of strategy and position in his first four years, and he seems determined this time to chart a different course.
Will President Obama disappoint in this second term? Yes. Will he have to be prodded, chastised and challenged by Americans who demand that the progressive language of his inaugural address be—in Obama’s own words—“made real”? Absolutely. You would not know from his speech that Wall Street, which nearly destroyed the economy, has emerged more centralized and powerful than ever, that mass unemployment continues, that wages are still in decline. You would not know, from Obama’s call for the “rule of law” and stirring claim “that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” that he is waging a global assassination and drone war that is killing civilians—US and foreign alike—and fueling deep resentment against America abroad. And you would not know that his Justice Department has carried out an unprecedented war against domestic whistleblowers (see Chase Madar in this issue).
But with this inaugural address, President Obama has offered an indication that he heard the American people on November 6. They were not re-electing him only because they liked him as a man. They were re-electing him to dispense with the fantasy—entertained not just by Republicans but by too many Democrats—that “freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few,” and to complete the journey from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall to the place of economic justice where every citizen has that basic measure of security and dignity that can and must be America’s promise.
Melissa Harris-Perry writes that President Obama’s symbolic recognition of minorities isn’t a substitute for policy, but it does matter.