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Reflections Upon President Obama's Inaugural Address


Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009

President Barack Obama delivered an Inaugural Address that will survive and continue to resonate, as the best speeches do. His wisest tactic was to point his listeners to a new horizon, creating a single new America out of the two racial Americas that had been in existence since the beginning. Rhetorically, he did it by invoking "our founding fathers," "our forebears," and "our founding documents." In a brilliant move, he relegated the extraordinary fact that he is our first African-American President to the background. More important, he suggested, was the reality that he noted early in his speech: He is the 44th American President, who traces the legacy of his power and his Presidency back to America's founding.

Obama's Wise Invocation of the Framers of the Constitution

When the Framers gathered in Philadelphia so many years ago, they faced challenges in many of the arenas that will demand Obama's attention immediately: The economy was weak, foreign trade was in disarray, and the military was being asked to do more than the Articles of Confederation could support. There were divisions between states, and between individual citizens, and a loss of confidence in the dream that had appeared with the Declaration of Independence. The Framers met the crisis with little hope that they could frame a perfect document or, at times, even a workable one, but they also met it with tenacity and determination.

Perfection was not achieved, to put it mildly, when they compromised on the "slave question" and counted each slave as only 3/5 of a person for representation purposes in Article I, sec. 2. The Constitution thus entrenched a two-race society. Slavery was accepted and unequal treatment enshrined.

Surely, it would not have been unfair for Obama to castigate the Framers for treating each African-American as only a fraction of a citizen. Moreover, though his temperament would have strongly counseled against it, it would not have been unfair for Obama to have pointed out that, by so doing, the Framers were responsible for putting into motion some of the greatest evils visited upon the United States – racial oppression, slavery, a deadly civil war, segregation, and discrimination. He could have said that his rise to the Presidency was a repudiation of their misbegotten "compromise." He could have contended that they committed a colossal mistake due to lack of foresight and wisdom, and that it had taken centuries to fix their grievous error.

Instead, Obama chose to inter the two-race America by tracing a single political genealogy for all American citizens back to the "Founders' ideals." Rather than perpetuate the two-race society instituted by the Constitution, he embraced the ideals of "our founding fathers" and "our forebears" as the shared property of all Americans – regardless of race. That perspective makes James Madison, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson, despite their grievous mistakes when it came to race, the political forefathers of white and black Americans.

Invoking "Our Common Humanity," And Seeking to Bridge Even the Divisions Between the Religious and Agnostics and Atheists

Obama also made another momentous choice. He might have framed his speech as I have framed this column so far, focusing on the prior two-race America that he hoped to unite. But the horizon to which he was directing our attention is even more inclusive: He brought to the fore "our common humanity," which had been buried by division. Race is not the only partition his Presidency will seek to remove; he also spoke not only of uniting all believers, but also of expanding the category to include non-believers. In particular, Obama said:

"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."

In this section of his address, Obama deftly made recent conservative ideology seem outdated and provincial. This is not a "Christian country," he suggested, but rather a "nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers." Finally, for those who would claim European hegemony over our history, he stated the truth, which is that American citizens are "drawn from every end of this Earth." W.A.S.P. history is now a part of America's history, not its only history.

Obama's Theme for America: Setting Aside Childish Things

In addition to discussing our national character and ideals, Obama also took on the specific crises before us. On this topic, he urged that the answers to the current economic crisis cannot be found through the application of what now seems like a narrow-minded distinction between "small" and "large" government. Obama explained: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." But it was not just the conservative political positions that he intended to sideline. What is needed, he suggested, is new energy and ideas regardless of political origin, because all of "the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."

Such sentiments might be derided as utopian, but that would be a mistake, for this was no mindless utopian speech. The new President was not simply painting a pretty picture of future harmony and joy. He was decidedly not singing "Kum-ba-yah." Instead, he was stating his intent to lead Americans to a different reality, one where we must all work together to find the best solutions to hard problems. It is no easy task. He bade farewell to the "time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions." From his vantage point of history, he told Americans, "the time has come to set aside childish things." No more self-indulgence; no more treating today as though there is no tomorrow. That sentiment, even standing alone, would have been refreshing and actually enlightening at a time of great darkness. In the context of Obama's speech and this new beginning, it was exceptionally powerful.

In closing, President Obama re-emphasized his theme of unity by saying not "God Bless America," but rather "God Bless the United States of America." As his speech eloquently reasoned, there is a difference.

Marci Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback.

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