President Barack Obama was symbolically sworn into office for a second and final term on Monday (the formal ceremony was on Sunday). As is traditional, the President had the opportunity to lay out his vision for his upcoming term. Obama’s speech was far different from the somber, circumspect address he gave in 2009, when the country was just beginning to grapple with the Great Recession. Monday’s speech was full of hope, and a pointed rejection of the worldview of his 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney. Here are the top five passages from Obama’s speech.
5. What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.
We all are aware that Barack Obama is America’s first African-American leader; indeed, he’s the first person with recent sub-Saharan African heritage to lead any Western nation. It’s easy to be glib about that, far harder to remember that it was but 50 years ago that America was fighting a bitter battle between those who supported integration and those who sought to maintain segregation. Obama is president today because of the millions of men and women who stood up and demanded that the self-evident truth of equality be extended to people of all races.
Over and over, our nation has extended equality to non-white, non-male, non-straight people grudgingly and half-heartedly, and only after equality was demanded. Obama’s speech acknowledges that — if we could recognize the “self-evident” truth that all people are equal, then there would be no question whether same-sex marriage should be legal, or women should get paid the same as men, or trans people should have the right to live their lives free of harassment, or whether restrictions on voting rights are at all appropriate.
The only way we will get to full equality for all people is to continue to demand it. It is, unfortunately, a never-ending journey, but Obama’s election (and perhaps more important, his re-election) is a sign that for all the arduousness of the journey, it is taking us in the right direction.
4. For we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.
This line is a direct rejoinder to Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe. The extremist base of the Republican Party has in recent years begun to argue that any assistance to the poor is “socialism,” any government action an infringement on liberty. Obama flatly rejects the formulation, recognizing correctly that a society is by definition collective to some extent. If we simply turn our backs on the poor and the needy, simply refuse to spend money to educate our children, care for our sick, and ensure our seniors enjoy retirement, we fail the most basic test of society.
3. We must act. 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 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
It is easy to complain when politicians — on either side — pass laws that are imperfect. There is suffering and sorrow aplenty in the world, and each time a bill is watered-down, each time a bill includes distasteful provisions, each time a new law fails to solve the problems of our time, it is tempting to simply declare the entire system broken beyond repair.
Politics, however, is a constant series of compromises between different factions. That is by design. Democracy was created as a way to avoid the previous method of changing government, which was armed rebellion. For good or ill, that means that sometimes, measures are imperfect.
That doesn’t mean that imperfect measures are meaningless, though. If a measure advances us forward, it makes it easier for the next group of leaders to move us further forward. The Affordable Care Act, for example, has many flaws, but it is better than nothing — and future leaders can build on it to make something better still.
The key is that we as a society keep advancing. That means, sometimes, that we have to work with those we disagree with. That’s democracy. As Winston Churchill once said, it’s the worst form of government, until you look at all the others.
2. We the people declare today that the most evident of truth 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.
Obama here did something important, and historic. He linked the struggle for equal rights for LGBT Americans with the struggle for equal rights for people of color and the struggle for equal rights for women. He said, flatly, that these fights for equality are one and the same, and all motivated by the same goal. Furthermore, this struggle for equality is, in Obama’s estimation, the fundamental bedrock of our society.
1. 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.
This, finally, is a direct challenge to the Randian philosophy of the right. There are not moochers and looters, says Obama. There are just Americans. And if we as a society choose to help those who need help, that does not diminish us. It strengthens us.
It is not a coincidence that our nation reached true greatness in the 20th century, when we embraced universal education, when we finally found our way to view women and people of color as equal, when we created safety-net programs to protect those who were struggling. Nor is it a coincidence that our nation has struggled since it began to forget that what drives the country is not the super-rich, but the people as a whole.
Obama will face fights over the next four years, to be sure. But as he begins his second term, he has said to America that he believes in a nation where we look out for each other. He is saying, flatly, that the GOP may argue for a retreat from community, but that as long as he is president, he will not go with them.