Many people, issues and agendas will be clamoring for attention in President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address today. 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.
I am not saying his first term was somehow a letdown. Obama accomplished many important things in his first term.
At the top are ending the war in Iraq, 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. I would also add the Affordable Health Care Act. One could cite many other things, such as killing Osama bin Laden, equal-pay legislation, ending “Don’t ask, don’t tell”.
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.
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 it means that he will have to drag a recalcitrant Congress along with him.
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) and they forge a sense of common moral purpose in the face of the great challenges of the times. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech, which many regard as his most important, was just over 700 words. He spoke frankly about the 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 less dire but more murky and confused.
The broad issues Obama must tackle in a second inaugural address are security, opportunity, achievement and responsibility. The clarifying divide of the Cold War and threat of nuclear war are no more. Yet al-Qaida is not wholly destroyed, and terrorism at home and abroad remain real threats.
Opportunity, achievement and responsibility are tightly interconnected issues. Here the interests and concerns of the white middle class most link to those of urban minorities and undocumented immigrants. Obama should signal an unwavering commitment to tackling the sense of economic precariousness that is widespread.
Americans are not now about standing still. A continued note of striving for great ends must be sounded. This will involve a new and more central priority on improving education, particularly for those now most at risk of being left behind in the new global economy.
The most complicated aspect of a message concerns responsibility. The obvious is tackling looming deficits and entitlement-related spending. More than this, however, responsibility in these times means stating plainly that America will only prosper in the future 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.
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.
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