Will Obama Go for Greatness This Time?

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

(The Root) — On the day we officially observe Martin Luther King Day, we will also publicly inaugurate Barack Obama as president of the United States for the second time. (He will actually take the oath of office the day before in order to meet constitutional requirements.) Many people, issues and agendas will be clamoring for attention in Obama's second inaugural address. Personally, I have less a specific policy agenda in mind and more a grand ambition: I want to hear Obama signal that he will seek greatness in his second term. 


Don't misunderstand me. I am not saying his first term was somehow a letdown. I should not be counted among Obama's variously myopic or narcissistic critics on the left. And I certainly do not stand with his hopelessly out-of-step critics on the right. Obama accomplished many important things in his first term.

At the top of the list are ending the war in Iraq as promised, a sensible economic agenda that included the financial bailout, Wall Street reform, saving the auto industry and other efforts to stop the economic hemorrhaging he faced when he took the oath four years ago. To this list I would also add the Affordable Health Care Act (or Obamacare). One could cite many other things, such as killing Osama bin Laden, the Lilly Ledbetter equal-pay legislation, ending "Don't ask, don't tell," appointing the first Latina to the U.S. Supreme Court and more.

Many others think that now in particular is the moment for Obama to unveil an agenda for black America. I've heard it said that he should come out advocating a major assault on poverty, a special urban agenda and perhaps even a renewed defense of affirmative action. These are all worthy policy goals, but I don't see any of it as appropriate in a second inaugural (or perhaps even his next State of the Union address).

I have said before on The Root that Obama has governed in a very professorial manner. His political style has been one of doing the responsible thing, in a reasonable way, all premised on the right reasons. But this approach has neither created a well-defined legacy; nor can it sustain a claim to having risen to the great defining challenges of these times. 

Given a House of Representatives controlled by the opposition party and a Republican leadership beholden to its most extreme and irrational elements, promising another four years of levelheaded bipartisanship is not enough. The president must tell the American people what long-standing values and principles and interests are now at stake and signal with clarity what his direction will be in moving confidently into the future, even if, by implication, it means that he will have to drag a recalcitrant Congress along with him. 

Reading an inaugural address can be an inspiring or deeply boring exercise. The best and most memorable inaugural addresses hit three marks: They are brief, they speak in the voice of the singular leader of the United States of America (not merely the victor of an election or representative of one party) and they forge a sense of common moral purpose in the face of the great challenges of the times. 


George Washington's second inaugural speech was the shortest, only 135 words. Obama will have to do more. The longest inaugural address was given by the ill-fated William Henry Harrison in 1841, who talked for one hour and 45 minutes (more than 8,000 words) despite drenching rain — and subsequently developed pneumonia and died weeks later. This was clearly too much.

Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural speech, which many regard as his most important, was just over 700 words. He spoke frankly about the fundamental clash and destructive war over slavery that had defined his first term and called for Americans to "finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds." The challenges of Obama's times are at once less dire but also more murky and confused.


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.