Still, Obama’s address was a compelling combination of soaring and hopeful rhetoric and some detailed policy analysis. It was especially noteworthy that he plumbed the issue of catastrophic climate change, perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge of the Twenty-First Century. Obama spent more time on climate change than any other issue.
But he must come up better solutions than the failed program of cap and trade. This might include a national carbon tax would and a renewed commitment to achieve international agreement on curbing carbon emissions. The science on catastrophic climate change is now overwhelming, even skeptics are conforming to the consensus of the world’s leading climate scientists.
Obama’s speech also recognized that we are a changed nation, not just becoming more diverse racially and ethnically, but also evolving in our social values. Consider the three iconic historical events that he highlighted. The Seneca Falls Convention was the first women’s rights convention in American history, held in 1848. Well ahead of its time it called for equality between men and women. The Selma Alabama march of 1965 was the pivotal event that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that brought African Americans into America’s political mainstream. The Stonewall demonstrations that followed a 1969 police raid on a New York City gay bar marked a turning point in the struggle for gay and lesbian liberation. It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago for a president to single out these historical landmarks.
Obama made no concession to the Right in his address. He delivered a resolutely liberal speech in virtually all its particulars, not just on climate change, but on voting and gay rights, regulation of business, and immigration reform. In a thinly veiled swipe at Mitt Romney’s denigration of 47 percent of Americans, he said that initiatives to protect the social safety net “do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Now it is the follow-up that counts. Obama will not get his policies through a conservative House of Representatives by schmoozing with congressional leaders or attempting backroom deals. Congress is like Wall Street. It operates on two principles: fear and greed.
Obama can get the House to fear him only by getting the American people behind his agenda. Great social change usually occurs only in a crisis like the Great Depression or through relentless grassroots pressure like that of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
There are signs that Obama will follow this course in his second term. He seems more willing than in his first term to take control over national debates and to use the bully pulpit of the presidency. He has already made a compelling speech on gun control. He showed some steel in the conflict over the fiscal cliff. And he is converting his grassroots campaign organization into a sustained movement.
On Martin Luther King Day, Obama harkened back to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech by articulating his own dream for America:
"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. That is our generation's task, to make these works, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American. "
Lichtman is a professor of History at American University.