President Barack Obama used a rare second inaugural address to emphasize a common creed for America, a creed he sees as rooted heavily in Americans working as “we the people.”
But in presenting his vision of America’s shared sense of purpose, Obama focused on resolving urgent immigration problems, addressing the threat of climate change and ensuring equal rights for gay Americans. This newspaper was encouraged to hear him emphasize such priorities. Each focuses on a problem that for too long has gone ignored.
Yet as strong as the president’s speech was for greater social equality, it placed too little emphasis on generational equality. Because of the way our government is structured, we Americans today are likely to transfer a crushing burden of unpaid debts to those who come after us. If we don’t reform government, starting with Social Security and Medicare, we will hand off overbearing fiscal obligations.
Obama’s focus on social equality, collective action and central government goes back to the Great Society, the New Deal and the progressive movement. Republicans’ emphasis on individualism, entrepreneurialism and the power of local communities can be traced to Thomas Jefferson’s suspicion of collective power.
This has been one of America’s underlying tensions, all the way back to the nation’s founding. That it remains with us today is why liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans should pay special heed to this section of Obama’s address Monday:
“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time. For now, decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle.”
Both parties indeed are confusing absolutism with principle. Going forward, our leaders need a new sense of practicality. Pragmatism may not be part of our founding creed, but it is how the president and Congress – together – can give meaning to our ideals. During his first campaign for president in 2008, Barack Obama rarely mentioned Martin Luther King by name, referring instead to a “young preacher from Georgia.” But Obama regularly acknowledges the debt he owes to the civil-rights heroes of the 1960s – and how their strategy and sacrifice changed us into, as Obama often puts it, the only “country on Earth in which my story is even possible.”
The Obama presidency has made the once-unimaginable, well, ordinary. The family that lives in the White House is black. An African-American woman calls herself the “Mom-in-Chief.”
But last November’s election confirms that, if America hasn’t changed as much as we’d thought, it is moving forward and those who resist that reality are being left behind. On this historic day, this is a nation in which the story of Barack Obama is not only possible, it’s a fact.