President Obama's 2nd inaugural speech is one for the ages. Jonathan Alter asked via Twitter shortly after what lines from it will be engraved in granite one day.
My answer: "We, the people."
President Obama used the pronoun "we" 88 times in his speech. He spoke of climate change, of health care, of poverty, and of history, and did so in the context of our shared citizenship.
It was as much a call to citizenship as it was a call to unity. Two sections stand out for me. The first is his call to action:
That is our generation’s task -- to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. 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.
I don't think he could have made clearer the need for Congress to stop obstructing and start acting. But he didn't limit that call to Congress alone. He concluded his speech with a clarion call for every citizen to engage, to act, and to fulfill their duties as citizens, too:
My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction. And we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service. But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride.
They are the words of citizens and they represent our greatest hope. 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. (Applause.)
Let us, each of us, now embrace with solemn duty and awesome joy what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.
There has been so much punditry about what the President has to do and say in his second term, but very little said devoted to what citizens do. This is a real failure on the part of the pundits, in my opinion. They leave viewers thinking that the work of government is something which should take place among elected officials with no real engagement by the citizens.
This is how we failed in 2010. There was a sense that we elected this gifted politician to office and then most people checked out. President Barack Obama has called for that to end, and end now. By tying his own oath of office to the military's oath of duty, the immigrant's oath upon being conferred citizenship, and our own pledge of allegiance which is said at everything from sporting events to elementary schools, he called for us all to look at it as more than mere words, but our own duty to participate in democracy and raise our voices.
I can't think of a better way for him to have begun his second term. It was a speech of unity and tolerance, but also one intended to remind everyone that citizenship carries responsibility with it. While I'm sure there are some exploding wingnut heads, I do think reasonable people should hear what he said for what it is: A reminder that it's not just about Barack Obama, but every one of us.