The spirits of two great men, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., stood watch over the West Front of the United States Capitol on Monday as Barack Obama took the oath to serve a second term as president with his left hand placed on two Bibles -- one Lincoln’s and one King’s.
The event not only fell on the King holiday and 50 years after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but also came within days of the 150thanniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Without the revolutionary changes for which Lincoln and King were martyred, Barack Obama’s presidency would not be possible. This was abundantly apparent four years ago when he became the nation’s first African American chief executive, but it seems no less remarkable and significant the second time around.
In part, this is due to the context in which he starts his next four years in the White House. Amid ongoing events related to the Civil War sesquicentennial and with the huge popularity of Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” slavery and the 16thpresident are prominent in the public consciousness. Talk of secession and states' rights among those most unhappy with Obama’s reelection has also been a reminder that the issues that divided America in the 1860s have not been fully resolved.
The residue of the racism that once justified slavery is still evident. There is no doubt that Obama would not be such a hugely controversial and maligned figure in some political circles and in certain parts of the country if he were white. The good news is that the beast of racial bias is cornered and dying. Obama’s reelection is proof of that and, perhaps, that is why the second inauguration of the man seems to be as important a marker of our progress away from slavery, Jim Crow and bigotry as was his first. The first time might have been a fluke; the second time is evidence of real change.
No longer a barely known avatar of people’s hopes, Obama is now familiar. We know his failings and his strengths. We have seen him learn on the job, seen him make mistakes and misjudgments, yet stay cool under fire and win important victories. A man who sometimes seems aloof, he is also a man who has wept as he has responded to heart-wrenching national tragedies. He has gotten smarter and tougher and more ready to fight for what he believes is right. He has also revealed more of himself to the country he leads.
We have seen him as a husband and father. Obama’s love for his spectacular wife and his devotion to his two girls appears so genuine and complete that all but his most deranged detractors give him credit for being a good family man. The first family is exemplary. One of the real treats of watching the inauguration coverage was having the chance to see the four of them interact. In the 1990s, Bill Cosby’s TV family was credited with shattering bad old stereotypes and changing prejudiced minds, but "The Cosby Show" was TV fantasy. The Obama family is the real thing.
We know the Obamas and we know their address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. By renewing their lease for another four years, Americans have proven this country is still on track, still following the upward course set by Lincoln and King.