He did not utter the words, but US President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address was suffused with the spirit of a favorite phrase: Martin Luther King Jr’s call to heed “the fierce urgency of now.”
This was a president unbound from much of what defined him upon taking office four years ago, a man clearly cognizant of time already running down on his opportunity to make his imprint on the country and on history.
Gone were the vision of a new kind of high-minded politics, the constraint of a future re-election campaign and the weight of unrealistic expectations. In their place was an unapologetic argument that modern liberalism was perfectly consistent with the spirit of the founders and a notice that, with no immediate crisis facing the nation, Obama intended to use the full powers of his office for progressive values. “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.
After spending much of his first term “evolving” on the question of gay marriage and doing too little in the eyes of many African-Americans to address poverty and civil rights, he invoked “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” and cited responsibility for the poor, sick and displaced.
Obama came to office four years ago all but consumed by what he inherited: two wars and an economy in free fall. He then confronted an exhausting series of crises and political problems at home and abroad: budget showdowns, a huge oil spill, Middle East turmoil, the rise of the Tea Party movement.
Through it all, he chose to wage additional battles of choice, most notably his successful push to overhaul the health insurance system. But not until this point, with the economy gradually mending, one war over and another winding down, with Osama bin Laden dead and the Democratic Party drawing strength from the nation’s changing demographics, has he had the opportunity to master his own presidency.
Obama has always had a dialectical quality to him: pragmatism versus ideology, bold versus cautious, hawk versus dove, post-racial versus man of color. Those tensions no doubt remain.
But since Election Day, he has seemed to be choosing between them more than in the past.
New York Times