By The Des Moines Register
President Barack Obama began his second term Monday with a speech that recalled the words of the Founders and civil rights pioneers to challenge the American people to come together today to realize the dreams of earlier generations.
The newly elected president hit an appropriately high tone for an inaugural address on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. It had lines inspired by Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. A common theme was the idea that “We, the people” are united in a noble cause to build a great nation. Now he must maintain those lofty principles as he goes to work to fill in the details of the plans he broadly outlined Monday.
Obama laid out his vision of how the current generation of Americans should work together to fulfill the promise of the Founders to provides equal opportunity regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or nationality. It is a vision of a nation that provides economic advantage not just to a narrow slice of the very wealthy but builds on a solid base of a rising middle class. It is a nation that not only defends the democratic process at home but helps it grow throughout the world.
The inaugural address is also an opportunity to articulate the principles of government the president believes in. While Obama acknowledged the “fiction” that government can solve every problem and the need to be skeptical of “central authority,” he clearly believes in a government that builds, regulates, protects and assures social and economic equality and opportunity.
He struck a defiant tone on preserving health care and economic security for retirees, a safety net for the unemployed, the disabled or disadvantaged, federal aid following natural disasters and safety for children in our schools.
In response to those who disparage “entitlement” programs, the president said: “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.”
Taken as an agenda for his second term, Monday’s inaugural address included references to immigration, climate change, gay rights, voting rights and safe schools. Achieving those things will require the president mounting his bully pulpit to put heat on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, protections for the rights of gays and lesbians, gun control, environmental regulation and expansion of renewable forms of energy.
President Obama again demonstrated his gift of oratory on Monday. He delivered a well-crafted inaugural address with inspiring themes woven throughout and a call to action for our generation to achieve the ideals of previous generations.
But Obama should have learned in his first term that it is not enough to state lofty goals in great speeches. It takes hard work, perseverance and tough-mindedness to deal with members of Congress who may not want him to succeed.
Obama should apply those lessons as he enters his final term. This time it will be not to build a case for re-election but for his own legacy. If it accomplishes the goals he laid out Monday, it could be a historic legacy.