It was a poem by Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco that best captured the spirit of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration on Monday.
He spoke of “one sun” and “one light.” He spoke of “many prayers, but one light.” He described “one ground, our ground, rooting us to every stalk of corn.”
“One wind — our breath,” he said. “Always under one sky.”
The theme of our connectedness provided the framework for the president’s second inaugural address.
“We are made for this moment,” Obama said, “and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together.”
He began by citing the words of the Declaration of Independence, his words echoing those of Martin Luther King Jr., who had spoken the same words at the other end of the Mall 50 years before.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident …” As Obama spoke, thousands heard King’s voice.
Obama said we are embarked on “a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.”
“While these truths,” Obama said, “may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.”
Then he moved on to the language of Lincoln. “Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword,” he said, “we made ourselves anew.”
The nation, together, has taken up many challenges. Together, we decided to build railroads and colleges. Together, we decided that a free society needs rules.
We cannot succumb to the “fiction,” he said, that government can solve all of our problems. But preserving our freedom, he said, requires collective action.
No single person can train all the math and science teachers we need.
“We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few,” he said. When we fulfill commitments to one another, such as Social Security, these do not sap us, they strengthen us, he said.
We, the people, have decided these things, and we’ve decided other things as well. We have decided that all men are created equal, and he listed three noteworthy instances when that proposition was tested — Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.
Seneca Falls is seen as the birthplace of the women’s movement.
Selma was a battleground of the civil rights movement.
Stonewall was the first major fight between demonstrators and police, in 1969, of the gay rights movement.
“We cannot walk alone,” Obama said.
He listed several new challenges of the journey to freedom and equality. We must ensure that citizens do not have to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.
We must provide a way toward citizenship and opportunity for immigrants.
No one must be excluded from the journey, he said, not people from the streets of Detroit or Appalachia or Newtown, Conn.
“We must act,” Obama said, “knowing that our work will be imperfect.” We must recognize this is a journey that will last for four years, 40 years, 400 years.
Obama said he takes an oath similar to a soldier’s oath, a new citizen’s oath, and similar to the pledge we take when we salute the flag. It is the citizen’s oath.
The voice of the citizens acting together can set the course for the country.
Obama’s speech was brief, and it was characterized above all by its vision of the American people as a community with open vistas of possibility.
It was also a speech marked by great humility. He did not put himself forward as a savior. He enlisted the people in a great cause, defined by our great documents, pointing toward eternal values — freedom, equality and justice.
As one Vermonter who attended the inaugural said, “History’s going to treat this man very well.”
He would be the first to admit he has not achieved all that he would like to achieve. He would be the first to remind us that we never do.
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