I watched the inauguration on CBS, and didn’t turn it off before I was exposed to the sophomoric punditry we get from both old and young on national TV. One of the talking heads informed us that the speech called for working together, which in mediaspeak means doing what Republicans want, and the rest of the comments reinforced that view. They had the text in advance, but they don’t get it; it didn’t fit their idiotic narrative. Now that we have it, let’s take a closer look.
I see three related themes. First, there is a reference to the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. This theme starts with “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. “ This is a reference to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Obama makes this stick by talking about the struggles represented by “Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall”. Those struggles are brought forward to today, and he adds to them fair treatment of all of our immigrants. This motif is reinforced by those participating in the ceremony, people from the communities who made up the winning coalition. Obama makes it clear that he knows who elected him and what they want, at least in the social sphere.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is best known for this:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
I think we can assume that Obama knows this, and intended to say that he recognizes that the minority who loathe these changes do not lose their personal dignity, but that they have to change. Peterr made this point last Saturday, and obviously Obama has read and understood Lincoln’s powerful speech.
The second theme is the statement that the election was a defeat for the Republicans who demand that the rich be given a special place in the nation, that they are entitled to run things.
The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.
He says that the privileged few are the biggest beneficiaries of the collective efforts of the nation.
No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.
… For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.
This is a beautiful restatement of Elizabeth Warren’s forceful statement that “nobody got rich on their own”.
The third theme is that the election was a massive defeat for every last one of the conservative principles espoused by loser Mitt Romney, and Obama knows it. First, he throws the Republican campaign themes back in their faces. First there is the Warren reference, which denies the premise of the Republican Convention. Then there is this:
The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
This is a flat denial of the Republican makers and takers meme.
Second, there is no call for bipartisanship. Instead, there is as close to a demand for change in the losing party as we could hope for in a public speech:
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.
For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect.
Obama already has begun to act in this vein, as we saw on taxes. I want more. I hope he makes McConnell get that lemon-sucking look every single day as he realizes he failed in his mission to ruin this President. This speech is a hopeful first step on the road to change.
Photo by Gage Skidmore under Creative Commons license