On the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama broadly defined equality for a new century. The nation's first black president reached beyond race in his second inaugural address to bind his policy initiatives with the threads of opportunity and fair treatment for all. Those are the ties that Obama is counting on to bring the nation together and break the partisan gridlock in Washington.
The speech, short by inauguration standards, lacked the soaring rhetoric and memorable moments that propelled Obama to the White House. But this is a president whose idealism of four years ago has been tempered by battles with Congress and the realities of governing. Between the Connecticut school massacre and the fiscal cliff, there has been no time to celebrate a difficult re-election win. The scaled-down inaugural festivities were muted, a brief pause in the grinding battles over the federal deficit.
Obama used the occasion to reach beyond the capital, emphasizing the responsibility of citizens to remain engaged in governing after the elections are over. He argued that the American values of independence and free enterprise are cultivated rather than compromised by government action that helps create opportunities for individual success. It was a thoughtful defense of the new health care law, investment in education, financial regulation and immigration reform.
In the speech's most powerful moment, Obama invoked King's memory as he emphasized the importance of the common good. He repeated the phrase "our journey is not complete until …'' women receive equal pay, gay residents are treated equally under the law, immigrants are embraced and children are nurtured and safe. It was an overt appeal to inclusiveness by a Democratic president who won re-election with strong support from women and minorities.
Obama acknowledged the challenges ahead in working with a divided Congress. He called for action on the federal deficit, immigration reform and climate change. But he warned that there will have to be compromises. "We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,'' he said. "We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial …''
That is a message that should be heard by Democrats as well as Republicans as the next round of fights begin over the federal deficit. Ending the series of self-imposed deadlines and manufactured crises with substantial reforms will require compromise on all sides. There are going to have to be painful choices made to raise revenue, reduce spending and make adjustments to entitlements such as Medicare. If a grand bargain is too much to seek, then it will have be done piece by piece.
Obama begins his second term with the nation on more secure footing than when he took office four years ago. One war is over, and another is winding down. The economic recovery, though too slow for many families and small businesses, is under way. The fate of the president's signature health care law has been decided by the courts and the election. Now it is time for the president and Congress to move toward the middle on reducing the federal deficit in a responsible manner.