Peace president

The president sounds a call for unity and purpose in government.

January 21, 2013 

President Obama repeatedly cited the words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, “We, the people...” in his second inaugural address Monday. It struck an appropriate theme as he faces challenges in a second term that will demand of him and a fractured Congress more talk of “we” than “us” and “them.”

An inauguration, particularly of a president affirmed by the people with a second term, should be a call to unity in the country. The call is particularly welcome after 10 years of divisive wars and four years of seemingly endless confrontation between a president with progressive ideas and a hard-core Republican opposition in Congress determined to stop those ideas from becoming policy and law.

The oath-taking is a solemn but uplifting occasion for those who celebrate our hard-won, battered, tested, contentious but ultimately triumphant democracy. For every time a president takes that oath, it is a reminder of all the nation has overcome, from the battlefields of Yorktown to Gettysburg to Belleau Wood to Normandy to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a reminder as well of the challenges of racial and gender discrimination, of the Dust Bowl, of the Depression.

The president, re-elected despite a monumental economic crisis that began before his first term started, touched on the issues of our time, from the ending of wars to equal rights for women and gays to a sane immigration policy to economic recovery and equal opportunity.

The moment

“We are made for this moment and we will seize it so long as we seize it together,” Obama said. And he echoed that sentiment throughout his brief inaugural speech on a chilly day in Washington.

Time and again, this president called forth that theme, which surely was a message for the people, and the Congress.

There were as well signals that Obama will stand by his belief in social programs to help the disadvantaged and average earners who have been hurt most by the Great Recession. “We the people,” he said, “understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many can barely make it.”

“We the people still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity,” he said. “The commitments we make to each other, Medicare, Social Security, these things do not sap our nation, they strengthen us.”

Social conscience

These sound thoughts signal, most citizens hope, that President Obama will continue to stand for those programs and for economic opportunity for all. And he will do so despite Republicans in Congress, particularly those hard-core opponents from the tea party wing of the GOP, who seem to believe in an “every man for himself” philosophy of government that is selfish and shortsighted and entirely unrealistic.

As wars end and an economic recovery gains momentum, Obama’s call for a renewal of faith in all that democracy can mean is important. Now that peace is more likely in some places, the president has to hope he can maintain peace elsewhere, meaning, for now, Iran. His foreign policy must be firm, to be sure, but Obama’s willingness in his first term to unclench the nation’s fist greatly improved America’s image and position overseas, and thus has strengthened our connection with allies.

That should build support for any position the president takes on Iran. The president made it clear in his speech that he believes in strength, but that “We the people still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require a perpetual war ... (W)e are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.”

Now the task for a man who would be a peacetime president, abroad and at home, will be to try to bring his partisan opponents to the table for constructive action and not perpetual stalemate. A new term has begun. The people have spoken. They expect to be heard.

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