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Four years ago Barack Obama gave a sombre first speech as newly elected President of the United States. He started by saying “we are in the midst of a crisis,” and talked about a decade of war and a badly weakened economy. To the extent that he elaborated any sort of political philosophy it was one of carefully calculated moderation.
Those who were expecting soaring rhetoric were disappointed in 2009. Obama’s tone was cool, cautious and pragmatic.
Those who hoped for a progressive policy agenda were equally disappointed. The passage where the new President came closest to enunciating a policy vision could have been uttered by almost any Republican:
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”
At only one point, and a fleeting point at that, did the 2009 Obama express at least a nominal concern for the poor and for social justice. That's when he slipped in the phrase: "The nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous."
It was a brief moment in a speech that was almost dark and wary in its rhetorical flavour.
It seemed as though Obama believed that, despite (or perhaps because of) the great crisis that the market economy had brought upon itself, the American people were not in the mood for anything that resembled “radical” solutions.
And, in the President's mind, it seemed, he was absolutely convinced there was no appetite at all for policies that would entail -- to use a phrase that almost got Obama in trouble during the 2008 campaign -- "spreading the wealth around."
Equality and collective responsibility
What a difference four years make.
Virtually the entire focus of Monday's speech was not on that favourite shibboleth of politicians of the right, "personal responsibility" (translation: "Each man for himself"); it was on equality and collective responsibility.
Obama took a bit of time to warm to his main theme, invoking Jefferson's words "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and, more important "all men are created equal."
Early in the speech he reprised one theme from 2009, the necessity to tame a free marketplace that might ride roughshod, even over itself: "... a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play."
Then, after making a ritual nod to the virtues of “initiative and enterprise,” he outlined some of the challenges facing 21st Century economies: education, infrastructure, and research. That brought him to his central point: “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”
And then, just in case his message was not clear, he continued: “. . . our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. . .”
You could hear Republican teeth gnashing all the way from Alaska when Obama uttered those words.
But, unlike last time, that statement was not a throw-away, slipped into an obscure corner of the address.
Obama kept making that point, over and over again.
“We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.”
“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.”
Climate change, peace, and gay rights
He even linked an American social justice and equality agenda to global responsibility.
Try to imagine the current Canadian Prime Minister saying anything like the following words. It would be almost unthinkable:
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms . . . We will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. . .”
And, on the question of war, peace and security, this President – who did indeed “wind-up” two wars, but also vastly expanded the lethal use of drones, and sent troops into a supposedly friendly country’s territory to assassinate (rather than apprehend) an “enemy” – said something the likes of which we have not heard from any President in more than a century:
“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war... We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
As he worked his way to the address’ climax, Obama invoked symbols not only of the movements for racial equality -- Selma, Alabama -- and gender equality -- Seneca Falls, New York -- but of the ongoing struggle for gay rights: Stonewall.
The spirit of 1963
The President was acutely aware that he was standing where Martin Luther King Jr. stood fifty years ago, and he deliberately borrowed some of King’s famed rhetorical cadence:
“. . .Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law . . . Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity. . . Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and . . . safe from harm.”
The political battles lie ahead of the newly re-elected President. The record keepers tell us that Obama is only the second Democratic President in the time of universal suffrage to win a popular-vote majority twice in a row.
Only a statistic, maybe, and Republicans have their own statistics. Their version is that Obama is the first re-elected President in a very long time to win a second victory with a narrower margin than his first.
But who's counting?
Obama throws the gauntlet down to the Republicans
The commentators are right, though, when they say that Obama did not give a conciliatory, “we can all work together” speech.
He did throw the gauntlet at the feet of Messrs Boehner, McConnell, Ryan, Kantor, et. al. And when he yoked his duties to those of the people – “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift” – he was almost making a call to activism, again in the tradition of Martin Luther King.
He was telling his Republican opponents – and sometime tormentors – that politics is not just a game elites play in the corridors of power. It sometimes engages the people, in the streets.
We’ll see how that all works for Obama and his progressive-sounding agenda.
In Canada, some of the people have already decided to take their quest for fairness and justice -- and against what they see as government arrogance and arbitrariness -- to the streets. They say of themselves that they are "Idle No More."
South of the border folks with similar aspirations may also feel compelled to take to the streets, if they see a President's plans hogtied by a self-righteous and uncompromising Congress.
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