President Obama returned to first principles of governing in his second Inaugural Address. He began with a reminder of what binds us, “our allegiance to an idea. … ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ ”
Practically all of us can recite those words from the Declaration of Independence. What the president stressed is that the “never-ending journey” of governing involves bridging “the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” As he indicated, such effort brought the railroads and highways of a modern economy, rules to ensure “competition and fair play” in the market, protection from “life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”
This is what we do together, the president stressed, suggesting the famous words of Abraham Lincoln about acting collectively to achieve what men and women cannot do on their own. The theme was apt for today’s polarized and dysfunctional Washington, too many in the capital having lost sight of what good governance entails.
There should be vigorous and noisy argument. Yet, for the country to move forward in addressing its problems, constructive compromises must be crafted. Deals must be struck to take advantage of what the president rightly described as the country’s strengths: “youth and drive, diversity and openness, an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.” Through “the commitments we make to each other,” the president reasoned correctly, the country becomes stronger.
This Inauguration differed significantly from four years ago, when a massive crowd greeted the historic arrival of the first black president, his campaign having offered much promise. This was a more seasoned president, laying before the country his vision of governing, drawing on the founders and applying their thinking to the present.
That isn’t to say the president lacked ambition this time. At the start of his first term, he faced an economic calamity and the management of two wars. Now his attention appears fixed more on the persistent problems of the long term. Without using the words, he pointed to the challenge of income inequality, a much underestimated drag on the economy. Yes, the budget deficit must be tamed — yet not at the expense of “caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
The president pointed to “the threat of climate change,” equality for “our gay brothers and sisters,” immigration reform and the need to address gun violence. He reminded that “our work will be imperfect. … that today’s victories will only be partial.” Such is the messy inevitability of what the Founders constructed. The president rose to the occasion in relaying the nobility in governing, recognizing how we depend on each other.