President Barack Obama gave his second inaugural address on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it was surely no accident that in honoring the spirit of King’s commitment to equality and freedom for all Americans, Obama’s speech was framed by those lofty ideals. Indeed, the president established freedom and equality as the roots of the American identity. How they play out in terms of policy priorities and, perhaps more to the point, political horse-trading will be the true test of Obama’s second term.
While he touched on many of the challenges facing the nation – including economic recovery, climate change, budgetary constraints, education and innovation, international standing – Obama’s inaugural-centered on the notion of shared values, responsibility and shared opportunity. It was this concept of community – in struggles and rewards – that gave the speech its poignancy, regardless of the listener.
“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 said. He used that frame to call for equal pay for women and men doing equal work, to call for equality of rights for same-sex couples and for voting systems that do not alienate or disenfranchise voters.
These priorities are, Obama pointed out, today’s version of the struggles we have faced as a nation in pursuit of the freedoms and equality upon which America was built. In framing them as he did, Obama deftly enveloped groups of Americans who have been marginalized to varying degrees into the nation’s collective identity, putting each on equal footing – in rhetoric at least.
The challenge, of course, is in translating that into meaningful achievements. As Obama mentioned at the start of his speech, the United States is founded on the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but the promise requires action. “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on Earth,” Obama said.
That is no small challenge in any democracy, particularly one as diverse and politically divisive as that of today’s U.S. How Obama addresses these fundamental freedom and equality issues in his second term will be a test of his leadership and ability to forge alliances where they have been compromised.
On issues less fundamental to the American identity, Obama faces even greater challenges. Those pragmatic and critical challenges will require concrete policies purchased with hard-won political capital. The inaugural address touched briefly on these priorities but did not articulate how they will be achieved. That is a conversation for a different time, but Obama’s speech Monday shows that his commitment is to an America where diverse voices are heard equally – it is not an easy position, particularly in a negotiation setting, but it is fundamental to the equality and freedom upon which this nation is predicated.