The Big Issues Obama Left Out of His Inaugural Address

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.

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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, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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