Toward a More Perfect Union

President Obama's speech was less about the frictions of the moment than this step in America's long, still unfolding journey toward a more perfect union.Republicans expressed disappointment or distaste for what they took as partisanship in President Barack Obama's second inaugural address. Democrats exulted in what they viewed as his manifesto for a progressive political agenda in his second term.

I heard something quite different. Through allusions to the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and the words of Abraham Lincoln, Obama linked the challenges of today to the ongoing project of creating a more perfect union. 

His alliterative reference to Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall linked the contemporary civil rights struggles of African-Americans, women and gays to the longer historical quest in America of proving we really meant our declaration that all men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights.

Obama didn't reveal anything new in his comments. He merely put these struggles into the context of a country that has evolved its understanding of what those words mean, a thoroughly appropriate theme for a presidential inauguration occurring on the same day we commemorated the words and deeds of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As he took one long last look up the Mall, seeing a teeming crowd stretching to the Lincoln Memorial, many thoughts undoubtedly flashed through Obama's mind. Those thoughts perhaps included his attempt to replicate the feat of Lincoln who tied preservation of the Union and, ultimately, abolition of slavery to the founding principles of our Republic.

Partisan tones were perceived in the President's ardent defense of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and of collective action. But again, I think critics missed the broader historical narrative of Obama's speech.

Steven Spielberg gave us a fresh chance to look back at Lincoln's time to see the wreckage of the Civil War, the salvation of a Union preserved and a people freed from the bonds of slavery. But few trumpet or remember an equally powerful legacy left by Lincoln who signed laws amid the Civil War creating land-grant colleges and the National Academy of Sciences.

The advances generated by these far-reaching institutions in medicine, engineering, agriculture and what was then called mechanical arts was credited by no less than General George C. Marshall for propelling the American victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. 

It should come as little surprise that Lincoln, one of the founder's of the Republican Party, favored such forward-looking steps. Earlier in his career, he championed public investments in canals and railroads, believing they built the backbone for a thriving expansionist economy. History has proven him right in his conviction.

We continue to debate public investment in infrastructure, both hard and soft varieties. Obama's defense of collective action wasn't a call for socialism, but a reminder of how this country was built through public investments that created gaping opportunities for private enterprise and protection for our most vulnerable citizens. His defense of the social safety net only affirms a current majority view that we cannot move forward by throwing senior citizens, poor people or the unemployed under the bus. 

Obama's reference to the pressing need of dealing with climate change set some people's teeth on edge. But his reference to tackling this giant problem is not much different than John F. Kennedy pledging to put a man on the moon to demonstrate American technological prowess. Or Dwight Eisenhower calling for a system of interstate highways to promote greater commerce and mobility. Or James Polk carrying out our nation's manifest destiny of expansion. Or Thomas Jefferson, the founding father of small, decentralized government, going into debt to make the Louisiana Purchase.

The absence of conciliatory references to political opponents was a contrast to the tone of his first inaugural address. But after four years of partisan bickering, it isn't surprising Obama looked past the frictions of the moment to ponder the trajectory of American history. 

His speech was for history, not to settle quarrels between the White House and a divided Congress or disaffected interest groups.

As I heard his address, it wasn't partisan or progressive. It was a narrative that marked American progress toward a more perfect union, with greater equality and a wider recognition of what it takes to support a modern nation.

Obama didn't write his speech to placate opponents or even please all of his supporters. He gave a chiseled, economical account of his moment in the still-unfolding history of America. He earned the right to claim it.

President Obama soaked up the moment of his second inaugural address, realizing he will never repeat the same moment in history.