The Big Issues Obama Left Out of His Inaugural Address

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The president's speech highlighted the gulf between the promise and the practice of America -- but it also showed how much narrower that gulf has become.

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"And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice- not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice."
-- Barack Obama, January 21, 2013

Perhaps the most memorable paragraph of the president's second Inaugural Address -- a paradoxical line likely to resonate, offered without any evident trace of irony, and proof again that it's always easier in politics to be more candid about someone else's problems than your own -- was uttered not about the United States but about the rest of the world. "We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East," Obama said Monday, "because our interests and our conscience compels us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom."

And then he spoke the words highlighted above, an RFK-style "ripples of hope" riff if there ever were one. Except it was not here a call to arms in the name of "our wives, our mothers and daughters," or in the name of "our gay brothers and sisters," or in the name of "striving, hopeful immigrants," or in the name of "all our children," or in the name of an America that has ever existed or which exists today. It was instead a call to arms on behalf of ordinary people who live in other countries, as if our own democracy is so safe and vibrant that we have extra time and energy to preach it to others.

In support of the exercise of democracy here at home, after a presidential election marked by a widespread partisan voter suppression, the president was oddly passive. "Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote," he said Monday, standing on Martin Luther King Day near icons who had suffered for that most basic of civil rights. The line was as vague and as was Obama's election-night throwaway-- "we have to fix that," he said early on November 7 -- and made no mention of the continuing vitality of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court is poised to strike down this very term.

Obama eventually made it back to some of the themes identified in his "source of hope" passage, about the power of "human dignity and justice," about the power of individual action in pursuit of noble collective goals. But he did not mention the staggering costs of imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Americans for non-violent drug crimes. He did not mention the racial disparities which still pervade our courts. He did not mention the unequal justice of our laws. And to his eternal discredit he did not mention the form of "human dignity and justice" which his Predator drones have brought abroad upon alleged terrorists -- and also innocent children.

On this level, at least, a cynic might say that the president's big speech was just another disappointing example of a politician preaching one thing and practicing another. But inaugurations aren't for cynics, are they? They represent instead about the only day in our election cycle, in the vast cycle of American politics, where we actually do something right. There will be more than enough time, starting with the Obama's State of the Union speech in just a few weeks, where we can pore over the details, count the contradictions, and highlight the hypocrisy. So let me begin again.

If James Fallows is correct (and he usually is), the president's speech heralds a new progressive push from a cautious politician finally freed from the burden of further campaigns. He will have more State of the Union speeches in which to rally his troops. And he will talk to us again in news conferences. We will undoubtedly watch him mourn future deaths. But he'll never again stand at that podium, face the Mall, and deliver a speech in which he shares his vision of America. This helps explain why the president lingered for a few moments at the top of the stairs Monday, why he said aloud that he wanted to see the view just one more time.

But whether the president's new partisan vigor means meaningful, lasting gains on climate change, or tax reform, or better protection against gun violence is today an unanswerable question. You sure wouldn't want to bet on it. Not with this Congress. And not with this Supreme Court. You needed only to see on the podium cutaways Monday the look of disdain on the sunglass-shielded face of Justice Samuel Alito to know how far Obama must travel in some circles to make good on his lofty rhetoric. The justice's vote simply isn't in play, not on any of the constitutional topics that mean the most to this president.

But it wasn't just the president's speech, with its inclusion of the Stonewall rebellion in the holy trinity of civil-rights symbols, that gave off the vibe that this time, Obama is at least going to go down fighting over some of the issues closest to the hearts and minds of his most fervent supporters. It was the whole show, from the invocation by Myrlie Evers, the widow of the slain civil-rights leader, to the benediction, offered partially in Spanish by Rev. Luis Leon, to the stoic verse in between by Richard Blanco, a gay Latino poet. Another 10 minutes and a same-sex marriage might have broken out on stage.

Never mind the Kennedy era of which the current president is so enamored. Such an inauguration lineup was unthinkable even just 20 years ago, when Democrats reveled in the coronation of Bill Clinton. That was the year that the odious anti-gay military employment policy of "don't ask, don't tell" became the official law of the land. And it was three years before the hurried passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, the dubious federal law which the Supreme Court could gut this June. Surely these stubborn facts must have gone through Clinton's mind Monday as he watched Obama deliver his speech from just a few rows away.

On this level, then, President Obama's big day was a stirring success. Of course, it did not guarantee where the American people are going to be in four years. But it highlighted to the world where we are today after where we were for all those years. In part because of the policies of the Obama Administration, in part because of the changing face of the American electorate, in part because of brave federal judges, in part because the arc of history bends toward justice, we are today a nation that eventually does get around to practicing what it preaches. All that, and Beyonce, too.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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