After taking the oath of office on Martin Luther King Day in the same humanity-packed National Mall where Dr. King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech fifty years before, President Barack Obama began his second term by making a powerful and persuasive inaugural address appeal for American unity. Unity of spirit. Unity of purpose. Unity of action.
"You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time - not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals."
At the core of those ideals:
"We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity...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."
Our great challenge is how to achieve that task, how to fulfill that promise in an age where the role of "opposition party" has been redefined and reduced by congressional Republicans to that of a "subversion party", dedicated to little more than destruction and ruining of any and all initiatives originating with the Obama administration. When what was once called the "loyal opposition" - a minority-power party that when push comes to shove remains more loyal to the "greater good" than to its own ideology and strategic alliances - repeatedly acts against the best interests of We, the people, then social progress is a tall task indeed.
But the president offered this impassioned inspiration to those who fear that We, the people may not quite be up to the task at hand.
"Let us, each of us, now embrace with solemn duty and awesome joy what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history..."
And as so often is the case, history offers a good guide to how we and our president can overcome the obstacles in our path and move forward. Think about the fierce political battle over health reform that raged on for much of the first two years of the Obama presidency. The White House knows and we all need to understand that only a great groundswell of public outcry and action finally forced Congress to take the historic step of passing the Affordable Care Act - just when it seemed to be going down in flames of misinformation, confusion and controversy.
A torrential flood of phone calls, emails, personal pilgrimages to legislative offices, demonstrations, letters to editors, prayers - all combined to force the gummed-up gears of government to finally come unglued and get something momentous done for the greater good of We, the people of the United States of America.
If you have a loved one with cancer who finally has health insurance now, or if you have an unemployed child in his or her early twenties who can finally share your health insurance now, or if you've been saved from a brush with death by a newly free health screening that detected a disease early enough to treat or cure it - then you know full well just how momentous the health reform law really is, and what a turning point it will prove to be in the history of this country.
Lesson learned. In officially beginning his second term in office, President Obama made clear there is more momentous work to be done. And just as Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 used the phrase "I Have A Dream" as a nationwide call to action in the name of racial equality and social justice; so is Barack Hussein Obama in 2013 using phrases like "We, the people, still believe" and "The journey is not complete", to remind us that for all the progress of the past fifty years, our collective action is needed now more than ever.
The president's inaugural speech brilliantly embraced and updated Dr. King's conception of a Civil Rights struggle fifty years earlier, now including the need to keep fighting for women's rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, workers' rights - for human rights. And perhaps most critical and urgent of all, President Obama was clearly calling Americans to action in support of that "basic measure of security and dignity" that can only come with economic fairness, opportunity and stability.
"For we, the people, understand that 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. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship...We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. 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."
Such talk, of course, is chalk on a blackboard and full financial audit all rolled into one for some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in America. The ones that put profits and personal income above all else. The ones who believe in no limits, no societal price-tags, no strings of social responsibility attached to their wealth. The ones who use their money to corrupt and control key components of our political and legislative systems, and to silently "sponsor" countless conservative spin doctors in Media, and in Congress. The ones who used all the tools at their disposal to engineer an upside down tax and regulatory system, a decades-long bottom-up transfer of wealth that created our current record level of income inequality, and ongoing economic instability.
In President Obama's second term, he'll be fighting back against the ones whose weapons are aimed and ready to fire at what remains of our working poor and middle class lifelines - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And he'll need an army of Everyday Americans ready for action, ready to fight back against the distortions and distractions dished out by all those "sponsored" talking heads. Unprovable claims will continue, about "Big Government" social spending being more of a problem than the government-subverting revenue robbers yanking our chains from above. And whatever the combination of frustration, fear and bad information is that makes some working class folks believe a "false narrative" whipped up by the very ones that have targeted them for marginalization and disposal...some do, the president knows it, and he accounted for it with great finesse in this second inaugural address of his presidency.
"Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. 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..."
Indeed. We, the people must ignore the politicians and media pundits looking to label Barack Obama's second presidential inaugural speech as liberal, moderate, too liberal, not liberal enough, or whatever else they think sounds smart and savvy. We must simply pay heed to the president's common sense depiction of the socioeconomic threats all us working poor and middle class people are facing, regardless of political persuasion. We must put socially divisive issues aside, unite in shared economic interest - the Public Interest - and turn ourselves into the kind of post-partisan A-Team we wish Congress could be. And if we do take enough United Action, we will lead, and our Congress will follow.
As President Obama put it near the end of his speech:
"You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course."