Columnist Karen Rubin: Inaugural breeds hope for new Obama term

Columnist Karen Rubin: Inaugural breeds hope for new Obama term

Barack Hussein Obama came into office in 2009 faced with an unprecedented confluence of crises – from near economic collapse to two raging wars, foreclosures and unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression. 

But in he apparently placed “changing the tone” in Washington” as a high priority, making this the underlying modus operandi to his process, and naively never expected that Republicans would not just stand by and let the economy crash and millions face months and months of unemployment, foreclosure, loss of health insurance, but that they would set their priority to make Obama a “one-term president.”

This time around, those of us who crammed the National Mall to capacity to be witness to history of his second inauguration, have hope that he has changed, that he has become wise to the ways of Washington.

It was still dark at 5:30 a.m., and yet the lines to get into the Inauguration were already snaking around many blocks; by 10:45 a.m., the park police said the Mall had already been filled to capacity and had to turn people away. By 2 p.m., the Metro reported the number of riders, 484,000, was 67 percent of the number at the same time in 2009. That would mean 1 million people. 

There are those who suggest with some derision that the fact that 800,000 were expected, about half of the 1.8 million who braved frigid cold and wind to see his first inauguration, was somehow a reflection of a decline in support. But even at 800,000, this is still the second largest inauguration in history. There were 500,000 for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

While we are on line, and waiting the hours, crammed into our area below the Capitol building decorated in flags, we meet people from all over the country, all backgrounds. It is the face of America. 

I meet the Harlins from Detroit, Michigan, and we reflect how the jubilation of Obama’s first inauguration probably had as much to do with the end of the Bush regime – how we felt seeing that helicopter fly away for the last time.

We had about a day of euphoria after that first inauguration, before the Republicans made it clear that ‘hope and change” would be a source of derision. 

This time around, we are hoping that the euphoria can last longer, that Obama, still a man who holds the ideals of “unity” and bridging partisanship, is more of a realist.

This time, the mood was not so much about the thrill of victory – our man won and the other guy lost – but as the excitement of the possibility of what Obama might do in his second term.

And those who were on the mall, had their spirits rise, hearing his speech.

In his first Inaugural Address, Obama seemed humble, even subdued, disappointing some who expected the soaring rhetoric and passion of his campaign. But this was deliberate: he wanted to take on the persona of a president and not the rock star in front of 1.8 million people – the largest inauguration crowd in history.

His first Inaugural Address was filled with the broad ideals of a nation coming together to tackle the challenges ahead, cheerleading despondent Americans passed the fiscal crisis to that brighter day. 

This time, he reiterated that same vision – still showed his overriding confidence that the American people, for all the differences, share the ideals – but he reminded that America was never perfectly formed, but rather a journey, paying homage to the past, but outlining a vision of the future. Indeed, the theme of the Inauguration was “Faith in the Future.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he said, reciting that preamble to the Declaration of Independence, but he added. “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’ve never been self-executing…

“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.”   

His tone was deliberate, confident in his role as president, the leader we had hoped he would be. And while his first speech articulated the broad ideals, this time he articulated a specific agenda. His themes and the ideals and his agenda were much the same as he has been saying throughout his Presidency and throughout his campaigns – he has been consistent, and clear. There is no bait-and-switch. The difference will be in process, and that is what he announced would be different.

“We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time.  So 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. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.  

That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.   

He then proceeded to set out a fairly specific agenda, wrapped in the overlay of America’s founding principles and the image of this nation’s greatest self. I was thrilled to hear him utter the words “climate change,” to recommit to strengthening Medicare and Social Security rather than decimating it, to shore up the nation’s fiscal house without betraying its promise to its citizens, young and old, the veteran and those down on their luck; immigration reform, education, equal rights for women and for gay community, even raising the issues of gun violence and voting rights.

“We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.) 

“We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. 

“The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  (Applause.)  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.  (Applause.)  

“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.  (Applause.)  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’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

And then he spoke of a redirection of our foreign policy, to put peace and diplomacy on par or even ahead of military action – a theme of his first campaign and first term, as well, but here, articulated with greater determination.

“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully –- not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.  (Applause.)

“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe.  And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.  We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

He added, “And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes:  tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.”

It is stirring to be reminded that Obama took this oath of office for his second term on the day we honor Martin Luther King Jr. The Inaugural events included a National Day of Service on Saturday, Jan. 19, with thousands of projects, millions of people, committing themselves to some project to better the community and society all across the country. On the National Mall, there was a building set up where thousands of people came to participate – writing letters to service members, projects to support the goals of protecting the environment, education, community health, and on and on. Even President Obama and his family participated in projects that day. What president has done such a thing. 

If ever there was a “People’s President” (though in theory, they are all supposed to be), Obama is that man

Obama’s Presidency has coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and will overlap the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington – both events commemorated in an illuminating exhibit at the Museum of American History.

Speaking out for civil rights in a way no other President has and sounding so much as if channeling the man, himself, Obama’s words rang out to the other end of the National Mall, to where the monument to Martin Luther King Jr. which Obama dedicated, now stands.

“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,” he said to thunderous cheers….”

He reminded that preserving rights – equal rights, voting rights – are part and parcel of the journey the founders set out upon.

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began.  For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  Our journey is not complete 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.  Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.  

“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.   Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.  

“That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.  Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness.  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.”

In keeping with the character of the man – and perhaps reflecting this changed approach – Obama did not confront Republicans, but he put them on notice. (Indeed, Republicans were peeved that Obama did not do what is “traditional” in an inaugural address of reaching out in a more conciliatory way, but that too, was part of this signal that Obama has tried that approach, to be the Great Compromiser and he saw what that produced.) 

But he toned down some of the rhetoric from his campaign saying, “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 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall….

He remarked on his oath of office, which is similar to that taken by the soldier and the naturalized citizen: 

“They are the words of citizens and they represent our greatest hope.  You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.  You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.  (Applause.)  

“Let us, each of us, now embrace with solemn duty and awesome joy what is our lasting birthright.  With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

That was more than rhetoric. That was a statement of strategy. For Obama continues to maintain the ideal that Americans can come together for the common good.

Probably the greatest indication that this is an older, wiser Obama (and not just the grey hair that normally doesn’t happen until the end of the second term), is that Obama showed he intends to reach out to the people directly to get things done.

Indeed, Obama’s “favorability ratings” always sink when he allows Republicabns to railroad him, stall, and always rise when he gets things done.

On the Friday before the Inauguration, Organizing for America, the grassroots organization that worked so hard to win election, is being transformed into Organizing for Action, 

    “Following in the footsteps of the campaign you built, Organizing for Action will be an unparalleled force in American politics. It will work to turn our shared values into legislative action — and it’ll empower the next generation of leaders in our movement,” the e-mail announcing the group stated.

“We may have started this as a long shot presidential primary campaign in 2007, but it’s always been about more than just winning an election. Together, we’ve made our communities stronger, we’ve fought for historic legislation, and we’ve brought more people than ever before into the political process.

    “We have the power to do even more to change our politics and our country for the better. With Organizing for Action, you’ll have every resource you need to do it.”

Obama is off to a running start, by acting swiftly to come up with a plan to curb gun violence that includes supporting legislation to ban assault weapons and high capacity clips (another incident at the University of Texas the day after Inauguration), and standing up in declaring he will not allow Republicans to use the threat to crash the economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, as a bargaining chip.

He seems to be wise to the technique of obstruction, obfuscation, of demanding “comprehensive solutions” when targeted solutions are offered (Dream Act versus immigration reform, ending loopholes versus tax reform), and targeted solutions when comprehensive plans are offered (health care).

“This time, he’s about getting it done,” says Doris Lee, of Missouri. He was too idealistic in his first term, naïve, too. “He’s learned a thing or two. He’s a wiser man.”

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