WASHINGTON, D.C. – Four years ago, I stood for hours in Arctic-like temperatures to celebrate America’s first black president and all the post-racial promise the occasion implied.
President Barack Obama’s second inauguration conveyed a more toned-down, less giddy feeling. Even the president’s tidy summation of the next four years seemed to send a sobering message: yes, we’ve made history again. Now let’s get to work.
Standing in the chilly sunshine and gazing back over the crowd flowing from the U.S. Capitol steps down the National Mall to the Washington Monument, I was surprised to learn there were only 800,000 of us.
Four years ago, the crowd swelled to 1.8 million.
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Likewise, those watching at home numbered 20.6 million this time around, a sharp drop-off from the 38 million who watched four years ago.
Nonetheless, there was enough pomp and circumstance to honor the awe-inspiring feat of holding a diverse republic together. With many parts of the world still passing power through bloodshed or dictatorial fiat, how we do it in America is noteworthy.
The president’s opening lines, paying homage to the Declaration of Independence, put the moment in its proper historical context.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.”
But that’s the problem. Molding the Declaration’s ideals to today’s challenges is difficult for federal and locally elected bodies. Don’t believe me? Tune in to the political intransigence in Olympia or the obstinance emanating from the Seattle School Board.
And yet, as the president spoke of those who “through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword” secured this country’s future, all I could think was that our forebears did not endure horrors of yesterday so that one day the Seattle Public Schools superintendent would have to defend his right to tell teachers what to do or a Democratic leader in the state Legislature would have to suffer being called a traitor for reaching across the political aisle.
People at both ends of the political spectrum need to compromise. We have not held it together for more than 200 years just so, to paraphrase Obama, we can have a country “run by the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.”
Democracy is a long, messy pursuit. It will always be a work in progress. Yet, we have to move forward on plans and ideas far from perfect.
“We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect,” Obama said.
Those who disagree are welcome to, but at the end of the day our leaders must move past them and act decisively.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
The president said something that filled me with hope. He said: “We are made for this moment.” That’s easy to dismiss in the heat of the political battles that distract us from real solutions, but let’s embrace the challenge Obama has set.
Lynne K. Varner’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow her on Twitter @lkvarner