Bob Greene: Obama's remarkable journey
"A never-ending journey."
Obama used those words to describe America's path. But, long after most of the specific words of his second inaugural address fade into memory, it is another journey -- his -- that will be endlessly instructive, both for his admirers and his detractors.
The ambition, the lightning speed with which, in 10 brief years, he changed the trajectory of his life, seem only more remarkable on a day like Monday, when, at the U.S. Capitol, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as he waited to again take the oath of office.
Among the faces at the Capitol as Obama arrived was that of a congressman from Illinois named Bobby Rush. Ten Januarys ago Obama was a member of the state Legislature in Illinois, having returned to those chambers after, in 2000, suffering a humiliating defeat. He had hoped to go on to national politics, to the U.S. Congress, but Rush had crushed him 2-to-1 in the primary. Obama's career, at least beyond the confines of Springfield, Illinois, seemed stalled.
In January of 2003, could even Obama, with all his self-confidence, have imagined that in January of 2013 he would be taking the oath of presidential office for the second time?
He will only be 55 years old when he finishes his second term. Perhaps, when all the politics are done, he will feel at ease to explain, in human terms, just how he convinced himself that all of this was even remotely possible.
"We cannot afford delay," he said to the nation Monday.
He was referring to all of us, to the country. But you could look at him and consider what must go through a person's mind when he seems stuck in a place he doesn't want to be, and decides that urgency may be the only answer.
"We are made for this moment," he said Monday, the words traveling around the world.
CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story," "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."
Brian Balogh: Obama reminds us why he's a progressive
Inaugural addresses, especially the second time around, are not supposed to matter.
This one did. That's because future historians will mark it as the moment that Obama explained why he is a progressive.
The programs that Obama called for were characteristically liberal: reaffirming the social safety net, equal pay for women, etc. Nothing new here -- just the Obama classic.
What differed this time, and what this moment was made for (to twist the president's own words) was articulating the progressive rationale for these programmatic ends. "Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action," Obama proudly told the nation.
Compare this with the rationale that Obama offered to the American people at his State of the Union less than a year ago. Saving the heroic mission to capture Osama bin Laden for the grand finale, the president insisted that the "mission only succeeded because" each brave warrior knew that "there's somebody behind you, watching your back." The pre-election Obama, still seeking the middle ideologically, deployed the lowest common denominator of Cold War liberalism -- collective security -- as the rationale for a far more ambitious social program.
His second election behind him, Obama linked his fate and the nation's to a rationale that propelled tens of millions of Americans into the middle class. By making collective action explicit, Obama yoked a century-old progressive agenda to the nation's founding documents and its past history. "Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people." To achieve America's lofty goals of "life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" will require back watching, backslapping and no shortage of back-scratching as well.
But today, Obama left that for back benchers. He stated the "c" word -- collective -- loudly and proudly. And the nation will be better off for his candor.
Brian Balogh, a professor of history at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, is co-host of "Backstory With the American History Guys."
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