Washington, DC — President Obama’s second Inaugural address was clearly driven by this haunting passage from his first address four years ago:
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
Obama was reelected after a bitter campaign and four years of strangulation politics, as the Republicans tried to say no to almost every last thing on his agenda, for instance stalling sweeping action on climate change and paralyzing any discussion on gun control — until the Newtown massacre forced it. The recriminations and worn-out dogmas were so ceaseless, Obama found himself often criticized by liberals and the left wing of the Democratic Party for trying too hard to compromise with uncompromising forces. It was a miracle he got done what he did on the environment, health care and the economy.
Today in his second address, there was no statement that the nation had officially crossed a bright, definitive line of hope over fear or unity over conflict. Instead, his speech was a forceful stepping back to urge Americans to cross that line themselves. His asked Americans to “make the hard choices.” He said, “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”
Having photographed many of Obama’s speeches in the 2008 campaign and the last week of the past one, his words mesh with his evolving body language. I remember so often in the 2008 campaign that Obama often was in a posture of reaching out to crowds, many times with a hopeful gaze outward, many times being hugged by voters who hoped he embodied their hopes.
This time around, his speeches were more punctuated with clenched arms and fists to make a point, with more pointed fingers, more fire, even determination, maybe even anger in his eyes. While the Inaugural address demands more restraint than when on the stump, I could see split seconds where the fire and the cheerleading of America was more that of a football coach at halftime of a game where the team was slightly behind. He was more clear than he has ever been that hope is something you work for.
That most came through in the passage where he said to repeated applause, “Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.
“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity — until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.”
Those were the words of an Obama who understands after four years, that this nation remains in mighty combat between hope and fear. Four years ago, the election of the nation’s first African American president gave voice to the notion that strangulation politics was defeated. His speech was a fervent declaration that the people themselves must get out there to break the chokehold.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.