To a greater extent than he did in his first inaugural address four years ago, in his speech Monday President Barack Obama made a point of focusing attention on issues vital to specific constituencies within his winning coalition.
Obama’s inaugural theme four years ago was the need for national unity and his call for “a new era of responsibility, a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our Nation, and the world.” And in his address Monday, Obama again included calls for unity, or what he called “collective action.”
But he went beyond that by, for the first time in a presidential inaugural address, referring explicitly to gay rights and to an event in gay rights history, the 1969 riot outside the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village in New York City. The Stonewall Inn protests followed a police raid on the bar and helped launch the gay rights movement.
In a statement issued after Obama’s victory last November, the Human Rights Campaign, the leading gay rights advocacy group, said, “HRC and our energized supporters have raised or contributed more than $20 million to re-elect President Obama and to advance marriage equality and other electoral priorities this (2012) cycle.”
In his address, Obama called for states to give legal recognition to marriage by same-sex couples: “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,” he said.
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The major action on this issue will not come from Obama or Congress but from the Supreme Court, which on March 26, 2013 will hear oral arguments in two cases that will decide whether a state can define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Also, the high court will decide whether a section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as solely between one man and one woman, violates the constitutional rights of same-sex couples.
Obama linked the Stonewall protests to the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Ala.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall … .”
Obama also acknowledged issues important to feminists, to people barred from voting by voter identification laws, and to immigrants illegally present in the United States who hope Congress this year will pass a law creating a process allowing them to become legal residents.
Calling for equal pay for men and women, he said, “Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”
On voting rights, he said, “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”
And on immigration, Obama said that he and Congress must “find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity” and change the law so that “bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
Referencing what’s likely to be a major legislative battle of the next several months, Obama alluded to his call for greater restrictions on the purchase of guns in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, saying, “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.”
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Earlier in the address he reiterated a theme from his 2009 inaugural address, urging Congress to take steps to remedy the effects of catastrophic weather events and global climate change.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
Applauding this part of the speech, Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “This is a call to action against the climate chaos that is sweeping our nation and threatening our future. Now it's time to act. Power plants are our single largest source of carbon pollution. We must cut that pollution.”
The crucial arena for action on this issue may not be Congress but the Environmental Protection Agency. While the House did pass cap-and-trade carbon emissions legislation when the Democrats had the majority in 2009, the prospects for such legislation now seem doubtful at best. The Republican-led House is likely to keep a skeptical eye on additional subsidies for alternative energy technologies, although Congress did enact an extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind and other renewable electricity projects as part of the tax bill Obama signed into law on Jan. 2.