This American Moment

23 Jan

Just got back from the Inauguration, and there is so much to say as President Obama embarks on a second term destined to be riddled with ever complex challenges and staunch obstructionism from the Republicans.  I will not get to nearly all I want to say in this post, but I just want to open with my takeaway from what will go down as one of the best speeches Obama ever delivered and perhaps one of the best inaugural addresses in recent memory.

Despite what’s been written, it was not a liberal speech.  Yes, many of his views have long been espoused by liberal, yet the beauty of the speech is that it highlights how these views are first and foremost American views.  They have been woven into our nation’s fabric like so many common threads, from our founding documents to the causes we’ve fought for on the battlefields and the streets to the programs that we’ve created and have stood the test of time as testaments to their place in the great American history.

I’m talking about his views on immigration, where he is not so much proposing a radical change in how our nation treats them but a recognition, that this nation has come to time and again, that immigration is as fundamental to the story of American as liberty itself.  We are not a nation that rejects immigrants, indeed we are not a nation with allegiance to any one race, ethnicity, or creed.  “What makes us exceptional,” he said, “what makes us American, 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, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  The bonds that unite us are not seen on our skin or at the church we attend or what kind of food we eat, they are so much deeper than that.  What unites us is a belief in equality and justice and liberty for all, that “when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American.”  We are not a people that closes our borders to preserve what is already here — we are a nation, united by these principles, that welcomes everyone that is willing to work hard and prove themselves because we know we need their help in building a more perfect union.  There is nothing liberal about that.  

Further, his commitment to action on gay rights is a liberal favorite merely because our long-standing hesitance and opposition to equality for all is so fundamentally against the American way that Obama has not just reversed his views he has embraced all that was contrary to him a mere nine months ago.  There is nothing American about denying equal rights to people based on whom they love; in fact a government imposing its will in deciding how people live their lives and rewarding those that conform while oppressing those that do not fit the mold is entirely contrary to the founding of this country.  It is true, George Washington may not have been entirely comfortable with gay marriage, but what is so great about America is that we recognize that even our greatest heroes, our most iconic leaders, were not infallible.  We do not seek to emulate their ideas or lives, merely to forge ahead in creating a more perfect union with the same courage and loyalty to the entirely novel creation that is America.  As Obama alluded to, there is a thread that runs through our nation’s history, from Seneca to Selma to Stonewall, that connects our eternal struggle of righting the wrongs that are inherent to our imperfect democracy, and that reminds us that in America, “our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”  An injustice to one is an injustice to all.  This may seem too difficult to realize, this may scare many people, and that might be why many conservatives derided this speech as a liberal laundry list.  But we recognize our imperfections and failures to live up to our founding ideals are not acceptable, but they are emblematic of the experimental nature of America.  We are bound to fail, but we are destined to strive.  His speech highlighted that we must, step by step, inch by inch, struggle on, in the spirit of our founders, to right the wrongs of our nation, expand equality to all people, straight or gay, and always strive for a more perfect union.

And finally, his vowed commitment to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, fighting climate change and all the low-hanging fruit for Republicans looking for ways to deny this speech’s significance in American history is not a liberal commitment, though we will gladly take credit for it.  In America, we take care of those that need help, and though there are changes that are necessary to maintain this commitment, we cannot shake our firm belief that protecting the sick and the elderly and impoverished from sickness and destitution is not the mark of a liberal America but of a great America.  There are some that believe our guiding star is the market, and while free-market capitalism has long been and will forever continue to be the engine that drives American prosperity, the American dream is not bestowed to the winners in the market, it is earned by those that work hard and play by the rules and contribute to our nation.  Liberals and conservatives everywhere can and should recognize our duties to these people.  And as for climate change, I will just say there is nothing liberal about believing in science and hating hurricanes and droughts.  

So in these ways, it is not a liberal re-emergence, it does not matter whether our nation is “center-right” or “center-left,” our loyalty is and should be first and foremost to country and to our founding principles.  Obama is pressing for a return to the values that made this nation what it is.  His speech set forth that if he is unyielding at times it is because what our founders and ancestors would do today may be unclear, but what they fought for couldn’t be clearer: liberty, equality, and a more perfect union.  Whereas our habit is to fight over politics and who’s up and who’s down, we must rise to our roots, we must maintain the American Dream, and we must press ahead not for the next election but for the sake of the survival of our nation.  

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