You and I Have the Power to Set This Country's Course: Setting the Tone for Obama's Second Term

I have to admit I felt more emotion than I expected during President Barack Obama's Second Inauguration. The congruence of so much history moved me. A black U.S. president was sworn back into office on Martin Luther King Day as Medgar Evers' widow, the courageous Myrlie Evers-Williams, become the first non-clergy to provide a stirring prayer. "We invoke the prayers of our grandmothers, who taught us to pray. God, make me a blessing." Her life is a testament to what the courage to persist can bring: justice after a 30 year fight for her husband's death. But that wasn't all: Obama took his oath of office on two bibles: one used by Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves and the "traveling Bible" of Martin Luther King Jr. who helped free a people once more. That oath was taken below the Statue of Freedom which sits atop the Capitol Building and which was built by slaves. This inauguration featured the first time a president mentioned the word "gay" and I'm pretty sure that was the first time a gay bar (and symbol of the LGBT movement -- Stonewall) was also mentioned. The youngest, first gay and first Latino to read a poem, Richard Blanco, brought tears to the eyes of many as he remembered his hard-working immigrant parents who created the opportunity for him to stand before the world and inspire a nation.

I believe it may have been the first time Spanish was spoken -- twice! -- at an Inauguration by both Blanco and in the closing prayer from Rev. Luis Leon. The Tuskegee Airmen joined the First Family to watch the Inaugural Parade. The coalition of Americans representing youth, minorities, women and LGBT communities received multiple nods during this Inauguration. From the president's speech:

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."

The president laid out his priorities and principles in this speech. A line that referenced equal pay for women got one of his biggest applause lines along with signals recognizing gay rights, immigration and gun control.

"Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  (Applause.)  Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law  -- (applause) -- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.  (Applause.)  Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.  (Applause.)  Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity -- (applause) until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.  (Applause.)   Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm."

Another unexpected moment that will cheer those who care about our water, our air and the weather was Obama's passionate plea on climate change:

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  (Applause.)  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms."

That got a big surge of applause, not surprising since most Americans are now concerned about climate change, a concern that's growing. While the president may be able to move forward legislation on immigration or education, global warming remains a strangely controversial topic in Congress despite the severe storms that have become difficult to ignore. Generations will look back and judge the president harshly if he does nothing on this issue, however, as the impact of climate change becomes more dramatic in coming years. Obama can perhaps do best to create a climate of cultural change so we can adapt to the shifting climate and he can also lead diplomatically on global efforts to address the mounting crises ahead.

Obama laid out a doctrine that will govern his foreign policy -- stopping the cycle of perpetual war yet supporting democracy forcefully around the globe. Call it Strength Through Peace, if you will.

"We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law.  We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully -- not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear." (Applause.)

It's clear that he will not sit idly by while those in need -- "the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice" in other nations look to the United States for leadership and hope. And he tempered a confident, energetic, hopeful speech with talk of partial victories, calling an end to name-calling that passes for reasoned debate. He tipped his hat to the 99 percent movement and how we may shape an economy that prioritizes average citizens.

The energy of this Inauguration from POTUS and FLOTUS down to the TV commentary to the many spectators was very different from the 1st term's commencement. For Obama's 1st Inauguration, the nation was floating on flighty fumes of hope and change yet Obama sought to prepare the country for the difficult time to come. The economy was crashing around us and we had the challenging task of two wars in faraway lands to end. His speech was a bit grim, as I recall, but didn't dampen the high spirits at all that day.

This second Inauguration, crowds in person to hear the president speak rivaled the enormous showing in 2008. The energy was more relaxed yet proud and celebratory. The mood was more confident and solemnly inspirational. A new America is being born that is based on the power of inclusion, which brings those together. As Myrlie Evers-Williams put it at the beginning of the Inauguration: "Let us act on the belief that everyone is included." You could call that the theme not only of the president's speech but of the entire day. It's how Obama built a winning coalition of Americans of different backgrounds yet who could come together behind one man's message. Will inclusion continue to inform and power his second term of office?

Obama's second Inauguration speech looked back to those who dreamed of an America that lived up to its promise of equal treatment for all -- suffragettes, abolitionists, civil rights leaders, gay activists and more. Yet this speech simultaneously pointed the way forward for those of us who must pick up the mantle of history, who must face down the challenges that meet us in our time as one nation under God -- indivisible. Richard Blanco said in his Inaugural Poem that "One sun rose on us today" but can we act as one people working for the benefit of all, not just those we know or just the few whose wealth and power we fear most?

The president closed saying: "You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country's course.  You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time -- not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals." He seems to call for Americans to help buoy his agenda in the days to come. Obama appears in this historic speech on an historic day to ask if Americans will seize the power of this moment in destiny with him to create the future today that we will all live in tomorrow. Will Americans, including Members of Congress and the nation's governors and mayor, heed the call? Will you?