Only 16 Americans in our 225 year history have had the distinct privilege of a second inaugural as president of the United States. President Barack Obama joins that rare fraternity (yes, fraters, all male) when he takes the oath of office on Sunday, January 20, 2013 (in a private ceremony to fulfill the Constitutional date requirement — the public swearing-in and festivities are all on Monday, January 21.)
President Obama’s second term comes at a time of economic uncertainty, ongoing national political controversies over the role and size of government, the culture of violence and gun control, reform our massive systems for health care and education. There are days when the political rhetoric is so bitterly divisive that we think this must be the nadir of our nation’s history.
Abraham Lincoln marched through the rain and mud of mid-19th Century Washington to deliver his second inaugural address as the nation was in the final denouement of the worst period in our history, the Civil War. No leader could possibly have contemplated more daunting circumstances as he sought the words he had to say to lead the nation out of its bloody internecine conflict (recent estimates put the Civil War’s death toll at about 750,000) to find a way to national peace, restoration of union, freedom and the rights of citizenship for former slaves and reconstruction of the cities and countrysides devastated by the war.
Every citizen today should read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address and meditate on the circumstances of 1865, threads of which remain unraveled today. “With malice toward none, with charity toward all,” he implored his fellow citizens, “…let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace…”
And yet, even today, almost 150 years later, this remains a nation of sharp political divisions, with unresolved issues of racism and class conflicts coursing underneath surface political battles. Just read some of the ugly rhetoric on gun rights and the fearmongering on the fringes. Consider the intense hostility toward President Obama, himself, that goes well beyond political disagreements. The nation made definitive choices in the 2012 election, at both the national and state levels, and some of these choices signal significant social change — and in some quarters resisting that change and rolling back the clock is a 24/7 occupation.
Lincoln chose to call for peace; his second inaugural was not triumphal, nor an effort to scope out a specific agenda, nor a recitation of his accomplishments. Hailed as one of the most important speeches of all time, the rhetoric rose above partisanship and claims of power to dare the people to find unity again as a moral imperative.
President Obama faces conflict and opposition, but he has the great good fortune to govern in a time of relative peace domestically despite the nasty rhetoric and sometimes incomprehensible rants from the wingnuts on both sides of American political life. His challenge at his second inaugural is to find the right words to unify the great mainstream of the American people, citizens who might be Republicans or Democrats or white or black or Hispanic or asian or hunters with guns or gun control advocates or passionate school reformers or members of teachers unions or fiscal conservatives or economic liberals —- his challenge is to ensure a sense of unity in the mainstream while respecting all of the great diversity of this nation, while, at the same time, repudiating the fringe behaviors that encourage violence, fear and fragmentation of political will.
The biggest problem we have in Washington right now is the inability of the mainstream to find the pathway to unity amid difference — to accept the plain fact that reasonable compromise is the only way to govern a diverse country of more than 300 million people, even as it was the only way to govern a nation that was one-tenth of this size in 1865. That nation, 150 years ago, suffered the devastating consequences of the inability to settle differences rationally.
If we are to learn anything from history, it must be that we owe future generations our best stewardship of our national unity in each political season. One man, one president cannot do that alone. At this second inaugural moment, We the People must resolve to bridge our differences, break the silence of the great majority in the middle, assert our most precious obligation to steward the assets of this nation effectively now so that posterity can enjoy the gifts of prosperity, peace and freedom far into the future.