Obama’s Second Inaugural: Our Moment for “Reinvention”

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it so long as we seize it together.”
– Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address
I was on the lawn in front of Obama, within sight of him, when he delivered that passage above, and his Second Inaugural Address, and I could not have agreed more, or been happier that he delivered it.

Obama on Inaugural StandObama gave a full-throated argument for the next phase of progress in America, which will be based on the next phase of progressive thinking, or, in my terms, a reinvention of progressive ideas to fit the new realities of the 21st century.

He stepped back and explained to all America and the world the case for the progressive tradition in American politics, starting with the core ideals, dating back to our founding documents, that all people are created equal. We’ve spent the last 30 years or so in American politics elevating the value of freedom, of individual freedom. Now it’s time to balance that with the equally important value of equality. Obama did that.

Obama used the address to further make the case for collective action, for working together to achieve goals that each of us alone simply can’t accomplish. He constantly used the word, almost a mantra, “together,” to emphasize this truism that many of us have seemed to forget.

He also used the address to tee up some of the biggest unsolved challenges of our time – like climate change. Here was a topic that was pretty much ignored in the campaign yet in this speech he devoted the most time of any issue to making the case why we simply must act now – not just for us, but for future generations.

What made me most happy, though, was that he didn’t pretend to have all the answers, or claim that the old ideas of the progressive tradition could solve these new challenges. He talked about the need for widespread innovation in the years ahead and literally talked about the American people’s “gift for reinvention.”

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it so long as we seize it together.”

Let’s just unpack that money quote: The passage alludes to the fundamentally new borderless global world we now inhabit that forces equally fundamental changes in our systems. buycbdproducts recommits to the core values (progressive values) of openness and diversity that constantly generate us. It’s got a can-do optimism that welcomes the future, and the progress that we can make as we move into it. It celebrates youth and change, innovation and risk – yet it reminds us that we can only pull this off if we work “together.”

Obama at Presidential Ball The entire speech was terrific, and I expect it will stand the test of time. Even David Brooks, the conservative pundit who is always intellectually honest in his analysis, called it among the best in 50 years. Clearly Obama wrote this one with his legacy in mind, which means he’s teeing up a more transformative agenda for his second term. It’s totally worth a full and close reading, but I’ll point out a few of my favorite passages:

I love how he plays on “re” words like remake and revamp and reform with the meta point that we have to redo almost everything to carry out our core values and ideals:

“We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires.”

Obama makes the common sense argument for why we have the safety net that many seem bent on destroying – because misfortune can hit anyone and everyone needs the confidence to take risks:

“We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity…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.”

Obama finally makes the connection to today’s extraordinary natural disasters and talks about climate change through the historical lens that our era surely will be judged:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”

The guy who took down Osama Bin Laden and is on his way to concluding his second war can finally steer foreign policy back to the more peaceful approach of diplomacy – an absolute necessity for our more globalized future:

“But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.

We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully—not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

And Obama resuscitates one of the central planks of 20th-century progressive (what many call Liberal) foreign policy that had been abandoned since the time of Carter:

“And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice—not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.”

Obama explains much domestic policy in terms of carrying out the logical extension of what it means that all people are created equal:

“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.”

And then he builds on that long tradition, and lays out the next agenda for domestic policy that we must carry out today:

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”

Obama then ends with a call for urgency and for doing the best we can with what we know for now:

“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, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”

Obama’s Second Inaugural speech was everything I could have asked for, personally, and as the founder of Reinventors and the host of the Reinvent America web series. The last four years was mostly about pulling the country out of a financial and economic crater, and extricating the country from two wars. Obama accomplished a lot beyond that in the first term, but he wasn’t able to fully shape his own agenda. He also made mistakes and learned a lot in those four years too.

Now Obama is heading into the next four years with a big, bold, potentially transformative vision. He’s ready to roll – and we at Reinventors are ready to roll with him. Let the reinvention begin!

Peter Leyden
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