Obama's Second Inaugural

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You should read my colleague Jim Fallows's initial thoughts on Obama's speech over here. For my part, I thought the speech was today sort of great. I thought it was direct, pointed, and clear about which American political tradition Obama actually hails from:

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together. 

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers. 

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. 

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune.
There's more throughout the speech -- I especially appreciated the riff on Seneca Falls, and I don't know that we've had a more full-throated defense of gay rights in an inaugural then the one the president offered.

I was tweeting some with Chris Hayes after the speech about the importance of rhetoric. Without relinquishing the importance of putting pressure on the president (drones!) I think that it's important to acknowledge the significance of speeches like this. 

There was a time when merely stating the ideas Obama put forth would have gotten you killed. And we still live in a time where people gladly tell you that the Civil War was not whether we'd be "half-slave and half-free" but about whether we'd be "half-agrarian or half-industrial." Or some such. I don't think most Americans really understand the significance of say Seneca Falls or Stonewall. And I don't know that any president has actually lauded either of these publicly.

As surely as it has always mattered to homophobes, white supremacists, and chauvinists what was and wasn't said in the public, it should matter to those of who seek to repel them. What ideas do and don't get exposed in the public square has to matter to any activist, because movements begin by exposing people to ideas. "I Have a Dream" is not simply important because of whatever civil-rights legislation followed, but because it put on the big American public stage a notion that was long held as anathema -- integration. The idea extends beyond legislation. 

Obama's speech is different. To some extent it exposes people to new ideas. But to a greater extent, perhaps, it shows how movements which only a few years ago were thought to be on the run have, in at least one major party, carried the day. This is not a small thing.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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