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Editorial

Obama sets tone for a broader agenda

President Obama

AFP/Getty Images

President Obama waved after taking a ceremonial oath of office Monday.

The confidence that comes with re-election was visible everywhere at Monday’s inaugural ceremony, from the forcefulness of President Obama’s demeanor, to the more expansive tone of his inaugural address, to the large, loyal crowd that poured into Washington to register its support. Plainly, Obama plans to use his second term to advance progressive causes that, in his first term, were either downplayed or submerged beneath the weight of the economic crisis. These include immigration reform, gay rights, and climate change, all of which were featured prominently in Obama’s speech.

Unlike immigration and gay marriage, which got frequent mentions on the campaign trail last fall, climate change has been a lost cause in Washington since a bill to limit carbon emissions got bogged down in the Senate in 2009. Putting the issue back on the map represents a bold move for the president, but he needs to follow up with a comprehensive plan to limit greenhouse gases. He will have to work hard to build public support: His decision to link the issue to wildfires and other disasters represents a good start.

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The theme of Obama’s address – the hard work necessary to achieve equal opportunity – was reflected in the giant crowd. Handmade signs declaring “We got your back, Mr. President,” and “MLK is smiling today” were planted on the steps of Constitution Hall, the cultural center of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The signs’ makers may not even have been aware that this was the venue that, in the 1930s, denied opera singer Marian Anderson the chance to sing there because of her race. The controversy led to Anderson’s massive outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial, an early landmark in the struggle for civil rights.

By now, however, the nation is accustomed to the different complexion of the crowds that tend to follow Obama – about half white, but far younger than at most political gatherings, and with large numbers of African American, Asian, and Hispanic families attending together. Four years ago, Obama’s supporters came to Washington mostly to celebrate an historic event, the installation of the first African American president. This time, they seemed more eager to demonstrate their unswerving loyalty not only to Obama but to the more progressive aspects of his agenda.

The large turnout should remind Obama that while these groups of supporters may be underrepresented in some of the institutions he must contend with – from Congress, to the nation’s business leadership, to certain aspects of the media and academics – they have, in two elections, produced from him a majority of votes. And they have expectations to match their confidence in him.

In 2009, however, Obama was appropriately focused on economic relief and, as his one diehard priority, an overhaul of the health care system. This term’s agenda, it is now clear, will be much broader. From his surprisingly comprehensive embrace of gun control, to his invocation of climate change as a current-day threat to America’s wellbeing, to his determination to give lesbians and gays an equal place in the American family, Obama has been showcasing his progressive values in recent weeks. He will need to do more to translate them into legislation. But he made a strong beginning with his call to action from the inaugural platform.

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