Monday, January 21, 2013

New Beginnings

Today is a day of celebration for two reasons.  The first and the most obvious is the ceremonial inauguration of President Obama for a 2nd term.  The second, and while well known, but not so obvious is the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday.   Now a federal holiday, Dr. King's birthday is important to recall today because perhaps without his work and sacrifice, the inauguration of President Obama might not have happened.

The day is important for our country for many reasons, but perhaps the most important one is the symbolic affirmation of our democracy.  President Obama was reelected in November of last year, so there is no transfer of power with this inauguration, but it is important to remember that at no time in our brief history has power transferred as a result of violence.  No soldiers who executed a coup, no tanks in the streets, no dictatorial fiat of continued leadership.  Ours is a government that has been fortunate to adhere to the views of the governed and our transfer of the leadership of this country has been peaceful.  That is a remarkable achievement over the course of our history as a nation.  Even with a war between the United States and the Confederacy, the election and affirmation of President Lincoln's second term was done without force. Perhaps the most poignant and fitting speech done in a 2nd inaugural, President Lincoln appealed "with malice toward none and with charity for all" called for unity amongst all Americans, even those taking up arms to break away from the country.

The 57th inauguration of the President, this President being the 44th to be sworn in, is a sign of new beginnings, of new hope and optimism for the future.  The ceremony that occurs every four years gives us a sense of what may be possible. It is a joyous occasion for those who love this country.  We can take this day, even if it is just for one day, to revel in the brilliance of our constitutional construct; that we have a government of and by the people, who through their voice have decided how we will pursue the future.   President Obama's 2nd term comes with many of the trials and difficulties that his first term experienced. Work is yet to be done to get our economy healthy, continue the advance of civil rights, draw down and extricate ourselves from the battlefield. But today, we can also think of what may be achieved.  What is the next big thing this country can do?  We have an enormous gift of wealth and energy.  Our abilities are equal to our aspirations.   Time and again, one of the 44 men who stood at the podium in front of the Capital have challenged the country with goals that have in one sense or another moved our collective experience forward.  Whether it was Lincoln talking about ending slavery, FDR providing courage in the face of economic despair, or JFK laying out a vision for a "New Frontier", these few who are brought into this office through the electorate have echoed the voice of the people and that is right and proper.

What will be our objective as we start this new term for President Obama?  How will we challenge him to ensure the betterment of the country?  What are we willing to do to continue this experiment of democracy that began so long ago in New York in April of 1789?  

President Obama is a member of a very exclusive club. Only 43 men (Grover Cleveland counts as two since he was elected to office twice in non-consecutive terms) have held this office.  He is also a member of a more exclusive club, one of only 17 who have been elected to two terms in office.  The people of this country saw fit to return him to work with a majority of both electoral and popular votes and expectations are high.  His first term was one of methodical success, neither soaring in achievement or miserable in failure, he dealt with a legacy from his predecessor that we are still recovering from. Now, after four years of intense partisanship, difficult choices and many disappointments as well as successes he begins again.  Traditionally, the second terms of Presidents are difficult and things portend the same for this President. But, again, on this day of optimism and hope, we can only wish him well, because if he succeeds in improving the economy, maintaining our security and establishing a perspective in this country of fairness and community, then we all succeed.  I wish him well.

I also wish Dr. King were alive today to see this event.  Obviously he would be proud to have witnessed the first inauguration of Mr. Obama and would have looked at it as a fulfillment of his life's work.  He would have been proud of the fact that an African American had been elevated by the people to the highest office in the land.  He would have also been the first to hold the President accountable for his actions and challenge him consistently to be true to the work that all of those who came before him in order to be faithful to the Constitution and those who consent to be governed by it.  Dr. King was taken by a madman while doing the work he believed in. He was working to support the sanitation workers (of all races) in Memphis who were bargaining for a better life.  He spent the majority of his adult life in the pursuit of bringing justice for all people regardless of the color of their skin.  He would see this inauguration as both an affirmation of progress toward that goal but also a challenge that more needs to be done.  He would likely have said that while we have seen this substantial progress, many are still being left behind. Many need to be lifted out of poverty and despair and he would have been as aggressive with President Obama as he was with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in order to see America meet its promise of a society that is more interested in the content of one's character than the color of their skin.

Tomorrow, we will get back to the arguing, debating and political gamesmanship that makes up our government.  We may see the same old arguments and positions coming forward perhaps as intractable as always.  I hope not. I hope this day gives us a new opportunity to start anew. I hope the intransigence in Washington can ease just a bit. I hope, that we can all decide that working together is more effective and productive than working apart.  The divides in this country are as bad as I've ever seen them in my lifetime.  I hope that today, those walls begin to crumble and we start building towards a better future together.  I hope.

So, I hope you will join with me today reflecting on the great potential we possess to make this country achieve those goals and objectives written down both in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution that we are all created equal and we must work, very hard to form a more perfect union.