Barack Obama: Equality, Diversity and the American Transformation

Notes anticipating the Inaugural Address:

By electing its first African American, bi-racial president, America redefined itself. Barack Obama’s singular achievement has been, and will be for the ages, his election, and his confirming re-election. The significance of this cannot be overestimated. It colors all aspects of Obama’s presidency, as it tends to be publicly ignored. Today, at Obama’s second inauguration, he will highlight his and our achievement, as he will take his oath of office on the bibles of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

Of course, Obama is not just a pretty dark face. He has a moderate left of center political program. He is a principled centrist. He is trying to transform the American center, moving it to the left, informing commonsense, changing the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, re-inventing American political culture. This will clearly be on view in today’s speech.

Obama has changed how America is viewed in the larger world, as he has slowly but surely shifted American foreign policy, ending two wars, developing a more multilateral approach, reforming the American military in a way that is more directed to the challenges of the 21st century. I should add: I am disappointed with some of this, particularly concerning drone warfare (more on this in a later piece). The President has finally established the principle of universal healthcare as a matter of American law, putting an end to a very unfortunate example of American exceptionalism. Another dark side of American life, the centrality of guns and gun violence in our daily lives, is now being forthrightly addressed by the President. His second term promises to address climate change in a way that has been foreclosed by the Republican opposition to this point. And he will almost certainly lead the country in a more tolerant and progressive approach to immigration and citizenship for undocumented Americans.

He has accomplished a big fuckin’ deal, as Vice President Biden declared in an unguarded moment following the passage of Obamacare (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) and today has been underscored by one of Obama’s primary critics from the left, Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize winning economist and New York Times columnist.

But in my judgment it all exists in the context of the redefinition of what it means to be an American. He now represents the typical American. His is the face of America and many of those who felt excluded, and not only African Americans, now feel that they are full citizens.  Take a look at this open public letter from a gay family attending the ceremonies today.

Lincoln turned the “Declaration of Independence” into a sacred text, when he redefined it in the Gettysburg Address. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  He elevated the ideal of equality, reinterpreting the significance of the “Declaration,” turning equality into a central political value. In the same way, Obama has redefined the significance of the motto on the American seal E pluribus unum, “out of many one,” into a central commitment to the diversity of national origins, religious, commitments, racial and ethnic identities and sexual orientations, elevating diversity, a central empirical fact of American society, into a central normative commitment, to be celebrated and cultivated. I anticipate that the theme of equality and diversity will animate his speech.

Now I listen to the speech and respond:

Extraordinary. More than I could have hoped, though I expected a lot. Comprehensive, principled, visionary, clearly setting out a (left of center) path for the country, embedded within a history, distant and recently passed. There was a noteworthy opening, centered on equality and diversity in American history. He engaged the politics of the day – climate change (with striking prominence), Social Security and Medicare, immigration, and women and gay rights -along the way, but it was the central vision that I found most powerful.

The audience was large and enthusiastic, fervently waving the American flag, red, white and blue, with resulting purple waves of enthusiasm. And Obama worked with this, presenting his vision that would unite, the liberal blue and the conservative red, moving the country in a progressive and more inclusive direction. Obama’s words soared.

He concluded with a series of paragraphs repeating the phrase “we the people.”

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

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity…

“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war…

“We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law…

“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.”

Obama addressed many policy issues, surprising instant pundits. But what was most noteworthy to me is that he did it by building upon and returning to his greatest accomplishment. It was a speech built upon the power of American diversity and outlined how this diversity will be used to address the pressing problems of the day, and as this happens, the United States stands as a city on a hill for others to observe and learn from. At least, this is the very ambitious promise of Obama’s second term.