Obama's Invitation to Activism

President Obama's second inaugural address charted a confident mainstream agenda for his second term. In doing so he rebuked hostility toward science, defended the social safety net as a source of national strength, and rejected the false theme of "makers" versus "takers." He coined a shimmering phrase as he invoked the principle of equality that "guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall." On the right to marry, he said "the love we commit to one another must be equal."

Naturally, he did not satisfy everyone, even among progressives. The naysaying went something like this: He's a lame duck; nothing will get through Congress; he's all talk and no fight; he's lip-synching like Beyoncé.

Perhaps we are so used to fighting the opposition that we don't recognize an ally when we see one. In fact, it was an upbeat week. Obama's outgoing and incoming Secretaries of State delivered smackdowns to Tea Party Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI); the GOP-controlled House blinked by voting to suspend the debt ceiling for three months; and Secretary of Defense Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat roles.

Obama applied a sharp historical sense to the GOP's use of mass incitement to enrich plutocrats: "The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic...." He beautifully echoed his greatest predecessor: "Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together."

One sign that Obama will use the bully pulpit more effectively is his decision to keep his campaign machine running. This is crucial given the evident determination by Republicans to learn nothing from their loss in November other than to avoid blurting out their extreme beliefs, and to try new schemes for rigging elections.

How Obama will fare with obstructionist House Republicans remains to be seen; but we cannot sit back as if it were someone else's fight. We have our work cut out at all levels of government.

My own latest example consisted of editing the 2013 policy brief for D.C.'s Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, in preparation for an upcoming special election for a city council seat. Every election is a chance to educate candidates and get answers from them on LGBT issues. GLAA's brief has a list of action items; we deleted those that had been resolved, and added new ones.

That's the life of an activist: there is always more to be done. Trans activist and Gulf War veteran Autumn Sandeen last week noted that "President Obama isn't including the vision of equality for trans people in the national civil rights dialogue in the same way he's included the vision of equality for gay people." But she also listed a dozen pro-transgender actions Obama had taken. That is what an activist does who wants to move forward and not just preen like a senator at a hearing. In GLAA's brief, we commend various D.C. officials for doing things we requested.

There are no perfect allies, and the pace of change can be frustrating. But it only makes sense to show respect to people who have helped you and whom you're asking to do more. Smart political activism is not therapy. It is work.

There is plenty of work for all of us. It was well said by our levelheaded president in defiance of a paranoid and pessimistic age: "You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country's course." He didn't say it was easy. Let's get to it.

This piece also appeared on Bay Windows and Metro Weekly.