Obama looks to past to set course for future

News Analysis

President Obama is a student of history - it was no coincidence that he formally announced his run to become the first African-American president back in 2007 at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his "house divided" speech in 1858 - and his inaugural address today drew an unmistakable line between the nation's past and its prospects for the future.

The president opened his remarks by referencing Lincoln's words from that speech, stating that America came to realize at that point in history that "no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free." He grounded his remarks in the Declaration of Independence's claim that "all men are created equal," tying it to both the American Revolution and rules mandating that there is fair play in the free market, to the need for a great nation to "protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune."

Later, he again invoked the declaration - though this time, he referred to the notion that "all of us are created equal" - before referencing three landmark moments in the battle for civil rights: The Seneca Falls Convention for women's rights, the clashes in Selma for African-American rights and the riots at New York's Stonewall Inn for gay rights. (The speech marked the first presidential inaugural in which LGBT rights have been referenced.)

He then pivoted from the triumphs of the past to the necessity of continuing the fight, calling for equal pay for women, equal rights for gay men and women, an elimination of long lines to vote, better treatment of immigrants, and, in an indirect reference to his desire to pass gun control legislation, the necessity of children from Detroit to Appalachia to Newtown to know "that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm."

At five separate moments in his second inaugural address, delivered to an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 people at the Capitol, Mr. Obama uttered the words "We, the people" - the opening words to the preamble of the Constitution. Those words were deployed to underscore the president's argument that Americans need to recognize that we are all in it together - and that while America celebrates initiative and enterprise, "preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."

"For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias," he said. "No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people." He went on to add that "we are made for this moment, and we will seize it - so long as we seize it together."

That idea underscored the positions Mr. Obama reiterated during the speech, which at times came closer to a policy-oriented State of the Union Address than an inaugural, which historically tends to be more about soaring rhetoric. (The president will offer his State of the Union on February 12.) In addition to arguing that economic inequality hampers the nation's success, he said that the future depends on harnessing "new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher."

"We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few," said the president. "We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other - through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security - these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

Mr. Obama also fit a call for a renewed focus on fighting climate change - an issue largely absent from his first-term agenda - into the notion of collective action for the common good, saying that "the failure to [address it] would betray our children and future generations."

In addition to climate change, Mr. Obama's second term agenda involves pushing passage of gun control and immigration legislation, overseeing the further implementation of the health care law, winding down the war in Afghanistan, and continuing to try to find some way to come to a major agreement with Republicans to address the nation's massive debt and deficit.

He has signaled that to accomplish these goals, he will take a more confrontational approach with Republicans than he did in his first term -- an approach illustrated by his recent refusal to negotiate on raising the debt limit. His inaugural address offered little in the way of appeals for Washington bipartisanship; instead, Mr. Obama called on Americans in and out of the nation's capitol to come together to help the nation stay on the right path, even if the results are sometimes "imperfect."

"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," he said. "For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay."

It was an appeal grounded in the notion that America's strength comes from all its citizens, no matter their status. And it was offered by a president who knows the debt he owes to history - a president who sees himself both as a symbol of American progress and a vessel to keep it moving forward.