Donald Kaul: Obama’s Battle Hymn of the Republic
I don’t think President Barack Obama gave a good inaugural address this time. I think it was a great one.
He began with the principles of freedom and equality that inform our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, and followed our journey through the many struggles we’ve undertaken to make those principles manifest — Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall.
Obama made glancing reference to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, as well as Martin Luther King’s speech on the other end of the Mall more than 40 years ago, and echoed John F. Kennedy’s words of resolve.
He embraced Franklin D. Roosevelt’s idea of government as an engine of progress and paid homage to the women’s movement and its continuing fight for equal treatment. He sounded determined to do something about climate change, the growing divide between the very rich and the rest of us, reforming our broken immigration system, and reinforcing voting rights.
And he tied it together under one phrase: “Preserving our individual freedom ultimately requires collective action.”
After three decades of being fed the lie that government isn’t the solution but rather the problem, it was a gust of fresh air to hear a president sound like an unapologetic liberal.
That theme was struck immediately when the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir started things off with a rousing rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the anthem of the Union forces during the Civil War. I can only imagine how that sounded to the southern Republicans, who have done their best to thwart Obama’s leadership at every turn.
It was as if he said: “We not only won the damn election, we won the damn war. It’s about time you got used to it.”
Was it a conciliatory speech? Of course not. He tried that once, remember? All he got for it from the Republicans was implacable hostility, unyielding obstructionism, and insults.
This speech, elegant in its phrasing and majestic in its arc, planted Obama’s battle flag on the Capitol steps. Up until now, the Republicans haven’t shown much respect for our president. They have made it clear that they think he’s a pushover. They might be having second thoughts.
Some have said that this marks the end of the era of Ronald Reagan. God, I hope so. Conservatives have raised Reagan to mythical status, endowing him with virtues he would not have claimed for himself.
I was in Washington during the first Reagan inauguration and it was quite a spectacle. Every limousine up and down the East Coast was commandeered for the event. You saw them everywhere, disgorging ladies in fur coats and men in formalwear. I felt as though I were witnessing a coronation in a foreign country.
For all his posturing, it was Reagan who sold the Republicans on the idea that it was OK to have a big government, so long as you didn’t pay for it.
Since then, they seem to have realized that you can only work that scam for so long, so conservatives now want to cut government, particularly as it pertains to the poor, the young, and the old, all the while maintaining the privileges granted to the rich and powerful.
They’re having a tough time selling that formula. That’s what the election was about. We’ll see whether Obama can make good on the implicit promises of his speech or whether the congressional proxies of the oligarchs who own our society can hold him off.
The election in 2014 will help answer that question.
As for myself, I had a great time hearing Obama’s speech. It made me proud to be an American. I love this country. For all of its flaws and warts and unfulfilled promises, I wouldn’t be a citizen of any other.
Donald Kaul is an OtherWords columnist who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.