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Opinion

January 26, 2013

Shribman: A speech invoking the past for the present and future

With a bow to the past, an arc toward the future and a steady eye on his place in history, Barack Obama opened his second term with a call to make the struggles of the middle class, the immigrant, the striving and the vulnerable the American cause in the second decade of the 21st century.

No modern inaugural address ever was as punctuated with subtle references to the American canon as this one, with repeated references to the preamble of the Constitution and with carefully shrouded allusions to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Embedded in Obama’s speech was a trove of the enduring remarks of three of the finest verbal craftsmen of the American idiom.

But equally prominent in his remarks were references to the pathfinders of American freedom, the men and women who expanded the American electorate, who broadened American culture, and who, with their challenge to the status quo, enlivened and enriched the mainstream of American life.

No president who preceded Obama would have placed in the same sentence the struggles of Seneca Falls, where an 1848 convention and a Declaration of Sentiments began the women’s movement; the confrontation at Selma, the Alabama county seat whose bridge in 1965 became a bloody symbol of the civil rights movement; and the 1969 riot at Stonewall, the gay bar in New York’s West Village that became a symbol for the fight for gay rights.

And by saying that it was America’s “task to carry on what these pioneers began,” Obama identified these onetime rebels with the insurrectionists who began the American Revolution and the American experiment — and perhaps not with their rebellious heirs on Capitol Hill who hold the Obama presidency and the Obama proposals hostage.

Overall, the Obama speech set forth the president’s vision of an America that preserves the social insurance programs of his progressive forebears, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson, even as it attacks the federal budget deficit and seeks comity in the Capitol, where ferocious fights over spending marred the president’s first term. These divisions similarly threaten his second term, when the question of the future of entitlements such as Roosevelt’s Social Security and Johnson’s Medicare almost certainly will be engaged.

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