The 44th president opened his second term heavy with symbolism, on the national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., 50 years after the civil rights leader gave his “I have a dream speech.”
Obama placed his hand on King’s Bible as he took the oath from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and later delivered a line with particular resonance: “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.”
The ceremony witnessed by 700,000 people on the National Mall and millions on television included a benediction with lines in Spanish spoken by Rev. Luis Leon, a Cuban immigrant raised by a foster parent; a poem read by Richard Blanco, who is Latino and gay; and the swearing in of Vice President Joe Biden by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was raised in a housing project in the Bronx.
What must Sotomayor have thought as Obama said: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God, but also in our own.”
Obama outlined issues for a second term, some of which weren’t discussed during the 2012 campaign or in his first term such as gun control. He pledged to tackle the threat of climate change, but made a similar pledge in 2008 and did not aggressively pursue it in his first term.
He urged a renewed effort to rebuild the middle class: “Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.” Some may call that a call to class warfare. It is, in fact, an American view of oligarchs.
Strikingly, Obama referred to the Seneca Falls Convention in New York in 1848 for women rights, King’s march on Selma, Ala., in 1965, and the 1969 uprising by gays in reaction to police brutality and harassment at a bar called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.
“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.” He declared his support for marriage equality less than a year ago. On Monday, he said: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”
The speech, with its themes of inclusion and equality, befit a president who won with support from women, minorities and young people. He made clear no one can succeed alone, saying safety net programs “do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
The president took office in 2009 amid two wars and an economy in collapse. The economy is stable, though hardly robust, and the president noted that a “decade of war is now ending.”
“My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together,” he said in a call to action to help bring about his vision.
There is plenty of room to debate the policies of the 44th president. But the second inaugural speech by this son of a Kenyan, who was raised by his single mother and by grandparents from Kansas, would have made Martin Luther King Jr., proud. Now he must follow through.