(The Root) — After a first term that saw fierce partisanship, a struggling economy and widespread disagreement on the principles that define us as a nation, President Barack Obama kicked off his second term with an address calling for unity while celebrating the nation’s growing diversity and insisting that we must respect and look out for all Americans.
“We have always understood that when times change, so must we,” said the president as he addressed the nation. “That fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
Speaking in a year that sees the convergence of two major anniversaries in the road to equality — the Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th and the March on Washington’s 50th — and on a day that coincides with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, President Obama frequently invoked names and imagery from freedom struggles, as well as the battles fought by immigrants, women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Certainly, his political base was not forgotten in this speech.
“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 intoned.
The coalition that helped re-elect the president was also well represented elsewhere in the inaugural proceedings. Slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, gave the invocation; the Rev. Luis Leon of of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., gave a benediction that asked God to help “see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white; male or female; first-generation or immigrant American or daughter of the American Revolution; gay or straight; rich or poor”; and even GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee quoted Roots author Alex Haley.
But beyond that coalition are the 49 percent of voters who did not choose President Obama for a second term. To them, and to the lawmakers across the aisle with whom he must spend the coming weeks hammering out a budget deal, 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.”
Will he be able to lead Congress in solving our nation’s economic problems and healing some of the political rifts that seem to have widened over the past four years? Time will tell if this sunny, brisk day in January is the beginning of real progress.