At his second inaugural, U.S. President Barack Obama harkened back to some language of the original framers of the American Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and the constitution they created after they gained their liberty. “Each time we gather to inaugurate a president,” he reminded his audience, “we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. 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 America 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, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But then he veered off to note the increasing polarity of the world, and even of the increasing gulf among Americans. “Today,” said Obama, “we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.
“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. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle century’s long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.
“For now, 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. We must act. We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”
In other words, as we have said many times, committing to democracy and the rule of law is hard, continual work that is never finished.