By Ruth Conniff on January 21, 2013

The sudden, jolting line in Obama's second inaugural address came two-thirds of the way into the speech, when the President declared " ... 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."

With that sentence, Obama transitioned from what began as a rather sleepy, conventional speech into a soaring declaration of our country's progressive values and the historic journey toward a more just society that includes women's rights, racial equality, gay rights, and immigrant rights -- the values that inspired the nation and won the 2012 Presidential election.

"Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts," Obama declared.

"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law."

"Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote."

"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; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country."

By connecting the civil-rights struggles of women, black people, gays and lesbians, and immigrants, Obama made a powerful declaration about the central place in history of these progressive movements, and about our country's progressive future.

It was a fitting message for Martin Luther King Day.

And it was a kick in the butt to Republicans.

As Paul Ryan sat listening, Obama delivered a strong rebuke to the Ayn Radian theories that drove the Ryan/Romney campaign about society's "takers" and "makers":

"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."

Yes, there was a note of caution on the deficit that could mean the President is still open to regressive Republican cuts that could stall economic recovery: "We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit."

But, very quickly, he added a defense of the New Deal programs that protect the poor and elderly from disaster -- through government spending:

"But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn."

The progressive tone of the last third of Obama's speech was so unexpectedly rousing, it jolted the crowd, and listeners of all political persuasions from coast to coast.

There was the strong statement about the threat of climate change -- that America must lead the transition to renewable energy, because "failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

There was the hopeful statement that "enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war," and the promise (though vague) to end a decade of war.

Instead of a pean to bipartisanship and sensible, middle-of-the-road governance, we got the fiery Obama of the closing days of his last campaign.

He denounced our nation's scandalous inequality: " our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."

He offered a poignant vision of a better possibility: "We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else."

We are a long way from realizing that vision.

But the bully pulpit counts for something.

And Obama used it well.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Bernie Sanders Urges Obama: Don't Cut Social Programs".

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.

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A plea to United States citizens to work for peace

An Indian journalist globally renowned as an advocate for the poor, Palagummi Sainath detailed the detrimental...

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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