Like all such speeches, President Obama's second inaugural address included meditations on the uniqueness of the American experiment and calls for national unity. But without offering the sort of legislative laundry list found in State of the Union addresses, Obama also used the occasion to articulate a series of policy objectives. The forcefulness of the speech — along with recent actions such as his refusal to negotiate with Republicans on raising the debt ceiling — suggest that he will be a more ardent advocate for his positions in his second term than he was in his first.
In his first inaugural address, Obama proclaimed "an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics." Four years later, he knows better. But even as he conceded Monday that compromises would be inevitable and "our work will be imperfect," Obama made it clear that he would press aggressively for his vision of a robust federal government.
The president promised that his administration would address climate change, "knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." He insisted that children "from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown" must be kept safe from harm, an allusion to his recent call for gun-control legislation.
Obama couched his calls for action in terms of redeeming the Declaration of Independence's promise of equality, which he said had "guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall." The journey to equality won't be complete, he added, until "we welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity" and "until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law."
It doesn't take a lot of deconstruction to see Obama's comments about immigrants as a reference to comprehensive immigration reform. As for "gay brothers and sisters," the obvious connection is with Obama's "evolved" position in favor of same-sex marriage. But his words also were good news for supporters of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We hope Obama's words prefigure a push for both initiatives.
Obama reaffirmed his belief in a muscular federal government and the importance of "collective action" to enhance education and infrastructure. He rejected the belief that "America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future." We appreciate Obama's vigilance in protecting the social safety net, but we hope he isn't abandoning any effort to reach a "grand bargain" with Republicans that would put Social Security and Medicare on a path to long-term solvency.
The president's new purposefulness is no guarantee that he will get everything he wants in what is still a bitterly divided Congress. But to achieve a political objective, a leader must first articulate it in forceful terms. Obama did that Monday.