It’s a pity, in a way, that this newly liberated leader will play his part against such a drab landscape. The major, foreseeable challenges facing the nation seem dreary and uninspiring compared with the cataclysms that allowed George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt to become our greatest presidents. Digging out of a recession, fighting disastrous climate change, rebuilding schools and infrastructure and reforming immigration policy are important, even urgent issues, but they do not rise to the level of saving the union or defeating Hitler.
That is why some pundits who listened to Obama’s inaugural address found it flat and uninspiring. They want flamboyant visions spelled out in fiery rhetoric — exactly the sort of thing that Obama disdains. He is not inclined to make it easy on us by dumbing down his proposals to catchy slogans. The most stirring line he came up with in his inaugural address was, “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together.” It doesn’t exactly rank with FDR’s admonition that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” or JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
But then, it’s plain, straightforward language perfectly suited for the long, slow and patient work that is still needed to get the country back on its feet again. We won’t get there without leadership from a president who knows where he wants to go, who knows how to overcome unbending opposition and who is not afraid to speak from his deepest convictions.
That is the sort of leader Obama seems to have become. Nowhere is the president’s retreat from the ambivalence of his first term more evident than in his ringing declaration that “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.”
I never thought I would live to see the day when any president — let alone a black one, being sworn in for the second time — would deliver such a vow. I hope I live long enough to see an unchained Obama speak out as forcefully on issues that he tiptoed around during his first term — less like Jackie and more like Larry, swinging for the fences.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va.