Toward the end of his second inaugural address yesterday, President Barack Obama said something so profound that it bears repeating:
For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall … 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.
In these days of hyperpartisan politics, I fear these lines—the best part of the president’s speech, in my opinion—were lost on too many Americans. Shame.
Why do I say this? Upon hearing President Obama’s call to civic action—and even as the applause it generated rippled across the Capitol steps and toward the Lincoln Memorial—I experienced a moment of disappointing déjà vu. This was not, unfortunately, the first time I remember him calling for bipartisan citizen action to address our country’s many hurdles.
What I heard the president say yesterday was what I always hear him saying: Over and over again, almost every time he opens his mouth, he talks about “We, the People.” Yet I suffer pangs of regret because his central message seems to repeatedly fall upon deaf ears, including too many of us who claim to be his supporters. For too long, he has asked for bipartisanship and citizen involvement, and for too long, we have left him high and dry.
We seem to continually hear impossible promises of things to come from the Oval Office. The “Ivory Soap liberals,” as Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald calls them, wouldn’t be satisfied even if the president delivered on 99.44 percent of his promises because that tiny fraction of things left undone—solving global warming, pushing harder for the public option on health care, shutting down Guantanamo, demanding tax cut caps at $250,000, or plunging the nation over the fiscal cliff to punish Republicans (and all Americans)—is the thing they most wanted to happen. Indeed, the central complaint leveled from the left against the president is that he has failed to follow through on all that he pledges in his many grandiose orations. This is especially hard to swallow for those on his left who seem to have an inflated opinion of what accomplishments are possible in this political climate from the man they helped put into office.
Do I need to remind you of the single-minded obstructionism President Obama has suffered from those on his right? Conservative opposition has been clear from the beginning and has worked hard to stymie the president and his policy ideas without regard to the effect on the nation. You’d think after failing to deny his re-election, Republicans in Congress would have learned a lesson. The less of their nihilism and the more of their cooperation, the better all of us will be.
No president is a miracle worker. Our republic is designed to prevent one person from wielding unbridled power and authority. It’s also designed to allow the many individual voices to unite in the free exercise of self-governance. In other words, what citizens come together and agree upon is what the government must do—not the other way around.
Yet there seems to be an expectation on the left that this president will be the transformative figure in American history, a liberal savior who will single-handedly reverse the conservative course of the nation—that, by the sheer force of executive will and office, he can do what our system is constructed to prevent.
To his credit, the president knows better. He has taken great pains to remind Americans that whatever change happens in our nation isn’t only his job to secure. President Obama repeated in his inaugural address—as he has in his most notable speeches since taking office—that the task and responsibility of change in our society lies in the manifold daily actions and decisions of average citizens. If there is a thematic whole to the current administration, it is certainly found in the president’s best speeches.
In his first inaugural address, President Obama said:
What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
And in accepting the Democratic nomination way, way back in 2008, at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, he said:
That’s the promise of America—the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper. That’s the promise we need to keep.
When the president says “we,” he means it. He’s not using the third-person plural as the self-aggrandizing “Royal I.” In other words, he’s not promising to do anything by fiat and instead is asking for citizen involvement in making the hard decisions to solve the problems our country faces. His speeches are clear, concise, and constitutional.
Still, it seems that “We, the People” has lost its meaning to those who want the impossible. Listen carefully to hear precisely what President Obama is encouraging us to do. Failure to comprehend the distinction can only result in unrealistic expectations of a president to behave in ways foreign to our creed and totally un-American.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.