We saw and heard — for the first time, really — the real pro-America progressive that Obama apparently always wanted to be. We heard a political leader making clear his determination to be a bold, transformational, progressive successor to that transitional fellow who succeeded George W. Bush.
Nobody who heard Monday’s inaugural address could have confused the two Obamas.
Back on Jan. 20, 2009, the most profound contribution that America’s 44th president would make to our nation’s history was conveyed at a glance. We witnessed something most of us thought we’d never live to see: a duly elected African-American president. Yet he was fated from Day One to clean up three disastrous messes he’d inherited: two tragically mismanaged wars and a near-catastrophic recession. No wonder that, even before he sat down at his new desk, Obama was speaking at his 2009 inauguration as if someone somehow had already painted him into a corner of an Oval Office.
The closest he came to a clarion call four years ago had nothing to do with bold initiatives, just let’s-get-along post-partisanship: “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. ... But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
But after four years of childish things, the president was Washington-wiser (see also: wearier). He had watched the “fiscal cliff” follies played out in the congressional sandbox. So, he used his inaugural address to signal a bold agenda shift.
Obama II has no intention of pursuing, or even paying lip service to, the go-along, get-along priorities of Obama I. Not even on deficit reduction.
“We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit,” he said Monday. “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.”
This time, Obama boldly championed action to reduce human-induced “climate change.” He pointedly stuck it to conservative naysayers who reject “the overwhelming judgment of science.” And he warned that failure to act “would betray our children and future generations.”
Mainly, Obama II will be remembered because his inaugural address went where none of his predecessors had dared to go before, not even Obama I. He championed full and equal rights for gays and lesbians, equating their fight to civil-rights battles we were also honoring that day, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” Obama said. “For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
Obama forthrightly challenged those who, after the slaughter of schoolchildren at Newtown, Conn., are falling back upon an illogical interpretation of the Second Amendment to oppose meaningful assault-weapon safeguards. “Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life,” he said. “... 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. ... We cannot afford delay.”
Standing there on the U.S. Capitol steps, Obama looked out over the heads of Washington’s elected players of those childish games. He implored America’s private citizens to lead their leaders.
“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course,” said Barack Obama II. “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.”
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.