Four years ago, at his first inauguration, President Barack Obama spoke of hope and change, and his idealism ran head-long into cruel political realities. Monday’s speech at the start of his second term in the White House was more direct and pragmatic. The president has a lot more gray in his hair than he did in 2009, and with it he has accumulated wisdom born of a challenging four years.
If the president has lost a little of his idealism he has lost a little of his naiveté as well. An Inaugural Address is expected to be upbeat, as Monday’s was, but it is obvious that Mr. Obama no longer has any illusions about being a grand unifying force in Washington. While he spoke sincerely of the need for cooperation in Washington, he also made it clear that were certain principles that won’t be sacrificed on the altar of politics.
In declaring that "We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future," the president reiterated his stance that Social Security represents a commitment, along with Medicare and Medicaid, to its citizens. His assertion that those programs "...do not make us a nation of takers" was a rejection of the Romney philosophy that half the population was a drag on the other half rather than an equal part of what makes a nation great.
The reality is, however, that the political opposition is not choosing "between caring for the generation that built this country and the generation that will build its future" -- it is choosing to do neither. A nation that isn’t moving forward is going backward. There is no middle ground.
Some of the loudest applause followed the president’s declaration that women should be guaranteed pay equal to men, as that battle continues long after it should have been resolved. In speaking in favor of gay marriage, Mr. Obama became the first president to address gay rights in an Inaugural Address. He had been a follower on gay rights, but with the momentum strongly shifting in favor of those rights he can use the bully pulpit over the next four years to help sustain that momentum. The president signaled Monday that along with gun law reform, the overdue reform of immigration laws with an eye toward fairness not punishment will be a high priority in his second term.
President Obama’s admonition that "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate" surely resonated with an electorate fed up with Capitol Hill posturing and stagnation. No political party should be arrogant enough to think it need never compromise, nor so blind ideologically that it will put its interests before the nation’s. Mr. Obama is plainly ready to work with his opponents but he is not inclined to capitulate to them. Nor should he be. The nation spoke clearly on November 6.