Amy Gehrt: Obama focuses on equality at inauguration

Amy Gehrt, GHNS

Standing before a crowd of hundreds of thousands of Americans, Barack Obama took the oath of office to start his second term as president of the United States on Monday.

Once the ceremonial swearing-in was complete, Obama faced the nation to lay out an ambitious agenda that surprised many with its substance and subject matter. A host of issues were discussed — the economy, climate change, gay rights and immigration reform, among others — but if there was one overarching theme I took away from this inaugural address, it was equality.

“Each time we gather to inaugurate a president we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution,” Obama noted in the opening of his speech. “We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

‘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.’”

Yet, as the president pointed out, more than 200 years later we are still struggling to fulfill that promise for many Americans. Minutes after placing his hand atop two Bibles — one used by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one by Abraham Lincoln — Obama proclaimed equality to be the “star that guides us still” and drew a parallel between watershed civil rights moments such as the 1965 Selma marches for voting rights, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention — the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. — and the 1969 Stonewall gay-rights riots.

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began,” Obama declared. “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

The idea seems simple enough, but by saying so Obama was actually doing some trailblazing of his own once again. Despite the decades-long gay rights struggle, and the 56 inaugurations that took place before, this marked the first time a president ever even uttered the word “gay” in this context during an inauguration speech, let alone made such a strong case for gay rights.

It seems somewhat serendipitious that the man who became the nation’s first black president four years ago would ­— on the very day the U.S. pays homage to King — make such a momentous move to stand firmly on the frontlines of the latest civil rights battleground facing America.

Of course, now that the pomp and circumstance has concluded the real work begins anew, and in order to accomplish his stated goals Obama will need the cooperation of a Congress willing to compromise.

“Decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” he said. “We must act. We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect.”

Obama also reminded lawmakers, and the American public, of their own responsibilities.

“My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction. ... But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride.

“They are the words of citizens and they represent our greatest hope. You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

Yes, there will be tough debates ahead. Fierce fights loom over the ballooning federal debt, tax reform and gun rights — just to name a few. We won’t all agree, even with those within our own parties or ideologies. Concessions and compromises will need to be made. But only by truly working together can we secure brighter futures for ourselves, and for future generations.

Amy Gehrt may be reached at The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the newspaper.