Will Obama Go for Greatness This Time?

Straight Up: Forget policy. His inaugural address must signal that he'll leave a lasting legacy.

Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural address (Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images News)
Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural address (Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images News)


But this president’s message must also make it clear that he will exhaust all possible steps before considering any military response to Iran and its potential nuclear threat. The building drumbeat of warmongering against Iran that we hear from many of the same voices who brought us the war in Iraq must not set the agenda.

Opportunity, achievement and responsibility are tightly interconnected issues for me. Here is also the place where the interests and concerns of the white middle class most link to those of struggling urban minorities and undocumented immigrants. Much of the great American middle class is acutely worried about their economic future, as individual families and for the nation as a whole.

Obama should signal an unwavering commitment to tackling the sense of economic precariousness that is now so widespread. The path ahead no doubt involves a combination of efforts to sustain the economic recovery, while taking serious steps to balance the budget and to continue the effort toward making the tax system fairer.

Americans are not now, nor have we ever been, about standing still. A continued note of striving for great ends must be sounded. This presumably will involve a new and more central priority on improving education (the implicit message here is that it is time for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to stand up with a real agenda if he is to continue in this administration), particularly for those now most at risk of being left behind in the new global economy.

Perhaps the most complicated aspect of a message concerns the notion of responsibility. The obvious meaning here concerns tackling looming deficits and entitlement-related spending. More than this, however, I think that responsibility in these times means stating plainly that America will only prosper in the future, given all of the competitive pressures in the world today, if we pursue serious policy efforts aimed at all Americans’ full and productive inclusion in the economic mainstream. This message from Obama must signal that his ambition spans the anxious middle class, as well as the marginalized urban poor and those noncitizen immigrants yearning for a legitimate place at the table.

How Obama can best weave these threads together, I do not exactly know. Yet this is the challenge. I am certain, however, that the core element of binding together this cloth must be a moral vision of a better America. It won’t be enough to go policy-wonkish on details, to merely rehash past accomplishments or to again call for “reaching across the aisle.”

In these times, a leader must sound the clarion call that we have weathered a tough economic storm and striven to bring true again our leadership standing among the nations of the world after a period adrift. Our destiny will not be tethered to the political machinations of anti-tax ideologues or deficit hawks without reason but, rather, will soar again with the high purpose and deeply reverberating American ethos of those ready to build the truly inclusive, prosperous and dynamic nation that is our future.

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.