WASHINGTON — Four years ago, when crisis lay like a dark shadow across the land, and President Obama’s first inaugural address served as a kind of pep talk to refute what he called “the nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable,” this week’s inspiring and dignified Inaugural ceremonies seemed so unlikely, if not utterly impossible.
In 2009, America did indeed feel like a nation slipping backwards. We all know the evidence. Job losses. Bank failures. Foreclosures. Terrorist attack. Wars prompted by a campaign of lies and deceit. An opposition party, driven by fanatic inflexible ideology, dangerously intolerant, and determined to wreck the country.
We were a country afraid of the future and bent by the potent winds of economic transition that so confused us we chose to cower instead of compete.
On Monday, though, the thoroughly confident president, buoyed by an improving economy, and advancing against a weakened Republican opposition in retreat, declared without any irony:
“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive, diversity and openness, an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together.”
Those words ring true to me. The first weeks of 2013 feel much different than the first weeks of 2009. Or the last months of 2012, for that matter. Some of that has to do with the economy. The United States now enjoys a globally competitive edge in agriculture, energy, the Internet, transportation, advanced manufacturing, and health care and medical research. As foundations for a new era of prosperity, the success of these seven sectors are unmatched by any other nation.
The country is using less oil, producing more on its own soil, and beginning to close out the era of coal-based power to enter a new age of cleaner natural gas and alternative renewable fuels.
The nation’s cities are now the country’s largest and most important sources of innovation and of energy-efficient lifestyles based on close proximity to homes, businesses, schools, and recreation.
The air and water are cleaner. More people are graduating from high school and moving on to two- and four-year colleges. Regions of the nation that almost never attract national attention — the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountain West, the Midwest, and the six-state Ohio River Valley — are now generating more jobs than the East or West coasts. For much of 2011 and 2012 Ohio was the fourth largest job generator among the states and a big reason that Barack Obama won a second term.
Still, the country’s improving spirit also is related to core principles and values in the oversight of national government that had gotten lost and now are being rediscovered. Much of Obama’s Second Inaugural Address focused on renewing this treasure of American fairness, security, and dignity; ideals that drove his 2012 campaign to victory and, very clearly, are helping to define his second term goals.
“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time,” said the president. “For now, decisions are upon us and we cannot afford to delay.”
Barack Obama delivered an Inaugural Address on Monday that reflected the hard steel of a veteran president’s character. Obama’s presidency has been forged by the hot fires of an economic depression, and the fanatics and lunatics of the opposition party who were desperate to sink the country in order to gain the captain’s chair. The Inaugural Address also displayed the fresh resolve and gathering strength of a president who recognizes that the principles of intolerance, austerity, fear, and scientific delusion that drove the opposition no longer hold such sway.
That shift, which was already underway, reached its conclusion during a seven-week period of tragedy and victory at the end of 2012 that was tied together by the opposition’s dire strategy and indecorous message. On October 25, Superstorm Sandy, a killer climate change-related event predicted by science that Republicans view as a “hoax,” drowned lower Manhattan and blasted the New Jersey and Long Island shorelines. On November 6, in the face of Fox News’ oft-reported certainty that Mitt Romney would be the next president, Barack Obama swept to re-election and Republicans lost ground in the House and Senate. On December 14, 20 first graders were murdered in Newtown, Conn., a wealthy enclave that supported unfettered Second Amendment rights and voted for the Republican presidential nominee and his allegiance to assault rifle ownership by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.
Altogether, these three events stripped whatever credibility remained of the Republican views of the authenticity of climate change, the security of unregulated gun ownership, and the strength of Barack Obama’s broad coalition.
As Republicans regroup, Obama now has an opening to propose and act on the big ideas of this time — responding to the changing climate, curbing the number of assault weapons in the hands of sociopaths, harnessing the power of the sun and the wind, acting on the national debt, making sure the new health care law works, and proving out the central tenets of collective action and progressive politics — “We the people,” in Obama’s words — as a surer answer to job growth, liberty, and opportunity than the politics of division and derision.
Our job as citizens? Do what we need to do to help: “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing,” said President Obama. “That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on Earth.”
— Keith Schneider