Posts Tagged ‘Washington DC’


President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address was a clear and sincere demand for equality, opportunity, and compassion. The speech called for unity in addressing contemporary challenges, and action in reaffirming American values. Among many issues, the president emphasized climate change, international peace, education, infrastructure, gay rights, care for the old and the sick, and economic fairness. He closed with an impassioned invocation of American greatness, and the confident claim that challenges (from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement) bring out the best in the American people.


Obama’s Second Inaugural will not stand out among the great speeches of our time, or our history. It will not inspire, and it will not convince skeptics. Although the speech was solid, and even radical at times, it sounded more like a state of the union (with a litany of programs) rather than a new call to arms for a new administration.


The speech tells us that the president will start his second term as he ended his last. He will continue to speak forcefully for Democratic programs that emphasize economic fairness and social justice. These programs are broadly popular, and they are the issues that helped reelect him in a hard fought campaign. The speech also tells us that the president will not offer a new vision for his second administration. He will double-down on what he believes in, and he will appeal over the heads of Congress to his public supporters.


The president’s speech and his strategy are sensible. By mobilizing his supporters and appealing to sympathizers, Obama is in a position to pressure a divided Republican Party. He can claim victory for legislative successes. He can blame Republicans for harming the country if they threaten to stymie his initiatives or even shut down the government. This strategy seemed to work already, as Republicans agreed in recent days to a temporary extension of the nation’s debt ceiling without major conditions.


President Obama’s Second Inaugural gives him a strong start on his new administration, but it is also a lost opportunity. To bring a divided country together, citizens need more than a persuasive list of programs. They need a new image of what our country is about, a new vision for what our future will be.


This is what the great inaugural speeches offered. We remember words from Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy because they painted a new picture of the nation, and they offered a new stirring sentiment for bringing divided Americans together. The best inaugurals used words and emotions to move listeners into a new place.


Obama did not do that today. He did not articulate a new image of America. He did not provide new words to heal our divisions. Obama spoke well, but he did not transcend his majestic moment. Maybe that is just not possible in our days of continued national division.


This blog post initially appeared at:


The newspapers are filled with images and recollections from the September 11,2001 terrorist attacks, but no one seems to care. The online news sources are warning of a new terrorist threat on the 10th anniversary this weekend, but no one seems terribly scared. Americans, even in New York, appear preoccupied with other problems. Americans are also tired of terrorist warnings and remembrances. College students who barely remember the September 11, 2001 attacks, do not view them as transformative in any way.

Even a few months ago, I had predicted much more public introspection and mourning on this solemn 10-year anniversary. Why is this not the case? Why is the public so apathetic about such a significant milestone?

The best answer is that the attacks were traumatic, horrifying, and enormously destructive, but they did not change very much. New York City continued to grow and thrive as a center of world capitalism. Washington D.C. remained the capital for the only truly global superpower, despite the economic difficulties of the last three years. Although the United States embarked on new wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other regions, most citizens (especially affluent professionals and college students) did not feel any pain. The lives of most Americans continued pretty much as they had before September 11, 2001. This was not a Pearl Harbor or Fort Sumter moment.

Some might view this analysis as evidence of American resilience. That is true. Terrorists can cause a lot of damage, but they really cannot challenge American power. Terrorism is a tactic with little long-term strategic value.

The frustrating element of American resilience is our society’s stubborn stagnation. We have changed very little since September 11, 2001, but maybe we really needed to change. Americans have continued to under-invest in infrastructure and education, as both crumble. Americans have burned ever-more fossil fuels, as our environment becomes disastrously degraded and erratic. Americans have continued to live beyond our means, as the piles of debt close off new economic opportunities.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 and their ten-year memory could inspire citizens to think in fresh ways about the long-term problems in our world, and the possibilities for new solutions. Courageous leaders would encourage these reflections as Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt did during the Depression and World War II, and Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy did during the Cold War. It is not the tragic events that re-shape a society, but the willingness of leaders to turn those events into productive experiences of self-sacrifice for larger purposes. For a decade we have lacked leaders of that caliber.

The last 10 years were a wasted decade. Americans refused to re-examine their behavior, they refused to investigate new possibilities, and they avoided collective sacrifice at all costs. Historians will look back on this period and condemn the pig-headedness of a people who were viciously attacked, and then stuck their heads in the sand. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were cover for a deeper denial that real behavioral change was necessary.

After a decade of such pathetic stagnation, why should anyone care about the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001? Our best hope is that the necessary changes of the next decade merit more reflection and celebration when we reach the 20th anniversary.


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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.