I was going to do this historical thing about Inaugural addresses. Talk about Washington, who thought it might be kind of nice to include a speech after he took the oath–which meant all the subsequent Presidents pretty much had to give one too. Mention that the ‘so help me God’ bit at the end isn’t in the Constitution and doesn’t have to be included–though things didn’t turn out so well for the first President to not say it, Andrew Johnson. Maybe say something snarky about William Henry Harrison, who droned on so long in his Inaugural (while not wearing an overcoat on a freezing rainy day), that he caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia, which killed him. Then finish with some comments on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the shortest Inaugural address ever, and by far the greatest.
But there he was, up there on TV, President Obama. A man I campaigned for and voted for and whose campaign I supported financially. Twice. But also a President I can only regard warily, with ambivalence. There are still detainees in Guantanamo, and still unmanned drones kill from the sky, and the climate continues to warm and the executive overreach of the Bush years remains policy. He’s been okay on the economy–not better than that, and he still buys into too much of the Beltway deficit hysteria. Too soft on Wall Street, too cozy with corporations. Give him a B minus. So, my Obama Facebook relationship status remains as it’s been. It’s complicated.
How many speeches have we seen from him? He’s good, he can handle soaring rhetoric, and though he doesn’t write all his own speeches–heck, neither did Lincoln, Seward wrote a lot of the Second Inaugural–Obama does a final polish that’s pretty eloquent. Second Inaugurals are about principles more than programs–Presidents lay out their agendas in the State of the Union.
Then he said this:
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.
Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall. It rocked me back in my chair, those words: those allusions to our history. Tying Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harvey Milk to Patrick Henry and Ben Franklin. Making ‘American’ mean ‘everyone.’ Seneca Falls–the founding of feminism, the declaration of equal rights. Selma, and the height of the Civil Rights movement. The Stonewall inn in Greenwich Village, and the beginning of the historical moment when our gay brothers and sisters stood up to be counted. And Dr. King, and his dream. That’s America. That’s what America stands for, every bit as much as Lexington and Concord and the Constitutional Convention.
Obama’s speech began with history, even quoting Lincoln:
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
But he didn’t just recite historical facts. It was a progressive re-telling of history, an attempt to claim American history to emphasize the best advances of liberalism.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers. Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
It was the history of legislative progressivism: the Highway Act, anti-trust legislation, Social Security and Medicare. And, without mentioning it, the Affordable Care Act, still his greatest accomplishment as President.
The whole speech was a challenge to conservatism. It acknowledged the conservative critique of progressive government (“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-old debates over the role of government for all time”), while asserting his commitment to a different philosophy and approach (“but it does require that we act, in our time”). But what the speech asserted more than anything is this: progressivism and liberalism are not inconsistent with American values, or with the Constitution, or with our history or with fundamental American patriotism. (“That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American”).That needs to be said; it can’t be said often enough. Liberals love America. Liberals honor the Constitution. The facts of American history can support multiple narratives–we are all Americans together. We just disagree a bit on some issues.
I support President Obama, because I mostly agree with him, on at least a majority of important issues. But I also like him, also admire him. He’s a man of intelligence and grace, an eloquent spokesman for American values. As he proved today.
And then Kelly Clarkson got up and rocked “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” turned it into a pop/gospel number, and nailed it to the floor. And her song, it turned out, was a lot like Obama’s speech. Older verities, given a contemporary sound. Tradition and history, but with a beat and drums and brass.
Barack Hussein Obama, 44th President of the United States. Michelle up there with him, Sasha and Melia. A wonderful family, a good and patriotic man, an eloquent vision for a compelling future. It don’t know when I’ve ever been prouder to be an American.