By Donna Brazile, Syndicated columnist
The Picayune Item
All the ideas and rhetoric in President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address emerge from a central theme: “It’s time to seize the moment.” Now is the time to come together as Americans.
Four years ago, in the midst of an economic collapse, two wars and so much uncertainty both here and abroad, Obama reached out for reconciliation only to find his political opponents had no interest in compromise.
Obama recognized the reality that we can no longer debate endlessly over matters hard to resolve, given our polarization. However, we must decide, knowing that many of the decisions will be uncomfortable, painful and require unpleasant compromises. Obama also recognizes the paradox that compromise — i.e., moderation — is not an abandonment of principle, but an affirmation of it. As Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
In order to move forward, the president asserted, “we the people” must come “together.” (Not coincidentally, the phrase “we the people” occurred five times; “together,” seven times.)
Our common identity, he said, quoting the most famous passage of the Declaration of Independence, is rooted in equality.
But allegiance to an idea is not enough. We must act on what can be done together, like raising the debt ceiling, which is the common good.
Obama also said, “History tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.” Our actions, however, must not be tinged with arrogance. There must be humility and recognition that those elected to office are above all, servants of “we, the people.”
Obama was also specific, especially on the topic of freedom and equality for all Americans — in women’s pay, in the right to vote without delays of hours, for providing our immigrants a path to citizenship and an opportunity to contribute their talents and hard work to “we, the people.” He talked about expanding economic opportunities so the working and middle class can advance as well as the wealthy.
He talked about equality before the law — that gays and lesbian Americans can share no less than other citizens in human rights. He talked about generational equality — that reducing the debt not unduly burden any one generation.
And he emphasized that “our founding creed” is something of a spiritual mandate: “While freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.”
Also, as he has done so often during his presidency, Obama emphasized the balance between our social responsibility to the elderly, the sick, the children, and the victims of sudden disasters, and the American maxims of individual responsibility and personal initiative.
On the one hand, “The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security ... do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” On the other, “we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. ... Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, there are constants in our character.”
He noted the paradox of America, that together we build our roads, our economy, our defense, and yet ... America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work.”
And then he returned to his theme: “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”
The motifs of the speech — we must act together, we must enact our founding creed of equality — has bipartisan support, as the polls indicate. Fifty-three percent of the public supports equal rights for gays, including marriage; 57 percent approves of opening the doors to citizenship for our immigrants, including the undocumented; 80 percent believes climate change is here and is a serious problem; and 67 percent favors the wealthy getting fewer tax breaks before programs for the middle class are cut.
In other words, the president’s principles are America’s principles. We the people’s principles. Yes, there will be and should be debate. Yet debate should not be an impediment to progress, but an impetus to it: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time.
“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 — we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial.”
In that vision, there is both strength and humility. In those words, there is leadership. But the leadership must not solely come from the top. It must be provided from us all.
In this, we can all come together. President Obama reminded us that once again, hope can be realized again.
(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News.)