The last few days have been replete with reminders of the transformational voyage — equal parts jolting and exuberant — which the United States has been embarked on for the last several decades.
Within the week just passed, we have observed the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion, in particular, enlarged the compass of women's prerogatives in general, and, as much as any other event, redirected the course of American history. There was also Martin Luther King Day, commemorating the illustrious martyr whose efforts and sacrifice led to a long-overdue extension of human rights, guaranteed by the Constitution but not honored for all Americans until King and other civil rights pioneers insisted on them.
And there was the second inauguration of Barack Obama as president, an event which in its own way was as affirmative of the evolution of American democracy as any preceding circumstance. In his inaugural remarks on Monday, Obama made it plain that he understands his role as a facilitator on the continuum of change. As the president noted, while the rights spoken to in the Declaration of Independence may be, as Thomas Jefferson proclaimed, "self-evident," they have never been "self-executing."
Evoking the defining phrase of the Constitution, that other great document of the founding time, Obama served notice that he intends to be the executor-in-chief, saying, "We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."
In an obvious rebuff to those of his recent opponents who preferred the elitist rantings of Ayn Rand or the catchphrases of latter-day social Darwinists to the documents of democracy, Obama said, "We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
The president exercised his rhetoric on behalf of all those to whom America has not yet made good on its guarantees of equality and protection for the pursuit of happiness. He specifically promised action for the equality of rights which gay Americans seek and for responsible regulations on guns consistent with Second Amendment rights. Both these resolves will be controversial, and both will be litmus tests not only of Obama's sincerity but of his ability to form a consensus for successful follow-through.
Up until now, Obama's caution and perhaps even a somewhat Pollyannish wish for harmony at all costs have held him back from acting on his best intentions. The vision he expressed in his second inaugural seems to put him in harness with the other pioneers of freedom of whom the past week has made us mindful.