Tuesday, January 22, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech restores STEM commitment and faith in America’s future

Getty Images, Obama inauguration crowd--US Capitol
Inauguration crowd at the US capitol--Getty Images.
Today was an American holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., a clergyman, activist, and leader of the American Civil-Rights Movement. Public schools and government offices were closed and many enjoyed a day off of work.  

This was also the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated for the second time. Because of the holiday, many could be home watching Obama's televised reaffirmation of leadership for another four years. In addition to his inaugural speech, a celebration of hope was delivered by some of the nation’s best performing artists, orators, politicians, and intellectuals.

Not everyone had the day off, however. Many have worked overtime for weeks in preparation and they won’t rest until the crowds are gone and Washington D.C. is restored to its pre-celebratory state. Thousands of military personnel wore dress uniforms that were painstakingly buffed and pressed. Their presence established an air of formality in honor of an otherwise informal president. A huge security presence lined the streets and secured national monuments, plazas, and byways. Since the country is in austerity mode, there are fewer inaugural balls tonight—four instead of the typical ten or more. Fewer are present—about half. Yet, millions watched history in the making on television and more will read about it online for decades to come.  

The president, his family, and cabinet arrived via motorcade of shiny black armored limousines that reflected the flag-lined streets and the colors of American solidarity: white for purity and innocence; red for hardiness and valor; and blue for vigilance, perseverance, and justice. During the 2012 presidential campaign there was a different preoccupation with color:  Mitt Romney (Republican Party, conservative, red) versus incumbent Obama (Democratic Party, liberal, blue). Everyone recalls the widely televised graphics of a nation divided between red and blue territories on a white map. Some forgot, or never knew, what our founding fathers intended the colors to represent. It was a contentious campaign and all were glad to see it end. Hopefully, everyone will take a moment on this holiday to revisit Dr. King’s 1963 speech that was also delivered in D.C., and listen to President Obama with a fresh perspective. We should also remember Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s 16th and first Republican president who said "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

New York Senator Charles Schumer welcomed everyone by saying that Americans have always been, and still are, practical, optimistic problem-solvers. America’s possibilities are limitless and we have an endless capacity for reinvention. He framed Obama’s speech by illuminating the importance of research to the process of recovery—great advice from a state that has overcome many tragedies in the recent past.    

Freedom Triumphant
in War and Peace.
Image via public domain.
The scene unfolded on the steps of The U.S. Capitol  under the watchful gaze of Freedom—a bronze work by American sculptor Thomas Gibson Crawford. Crawford personified Freedom in classic, feminine, militaristic form which was a common stylistic practice in the mid 19th century. She's a big girl at 19 feet 9 inches tall and 15,000 pounds (with her sword and helmet) and was placed atop the Capitol’s dome in 1863, the year the Emancipation Proclamation was signed which abolished the practice of slavery. It took place during the Great Civil War (1861-65) when the nation was divided by economic and humanitarian issues with slavery being chief among them. At the time, construction of The Capitol's elaborate dome was halted for fear that citizens would think the expense was a frivolous use of federal funds in a time of war. However, President Lincoln insisted that the dome be completed and that Freedom should be placed on top as a symbol of progress and unity. It wasn't a popular choice, but Lincoln, an agent of change, was willing to stake his political future, the future of our country, and ultimately his life on the belief that all people are created equal and therefore deserving of the same measures of dignity.

If Freedom could speak she would remind us that once slavery was abolished it took another seven years for black men and another 50 for all women to be granted the right to vote. Yet, as a living testimony to tolerance and change, today our first African American president acknowledged that the wheels of progress often turn slowly. Many are still disenfranchised and continue to falter. Freedom, while self-evident, isn't self-executing. It takes personal responsibility, hard work, sacrifice, and an unwavering commitment to change. As times change, so must we. He urged us to look out for those who are vulnerable and need help—“protect them from hazards and misfortune.” He looks forward to the day when young women are equal, “not just in the eyes of God, but among our own kind.”

Obama vowed to finish what he started. He said “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” With only a few minutes to outline goals for the coming four years, he illuminated employment, research, and education as priorities. This is great news since the American Pie is much smaller than it used to be. Hopefully, this means that Obama will cut a  larger slice for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) initiatives. 

A commitment to the national investment in technology and research was clear. He said that without education we lack innovation, and without innovation we lack technology. Technology drives industry and creates jobs. “We must claim its promise!” Obama urged everyone to heed the research community’s climate change call to action. “Failure to respond to this threat betrays our children and future generations. The path toward sustainable energy will be long and difficult, but we must lead it!” Several references to America’s natural resources indicate a commitment to conservation--"forests, waterways, croplands, and snow-capped peaks. We must preserve our planet that has been commanded to our care by God.”

Obama understands that research is critical to America's future. One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all—for another four years.


UPDATE--posted January 22:
A full transcript of President Obama's speech is available and the American Institute of Physics summary.


By Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek

STEM-Trek is a global, grassroots, nonprofit organization that supports the professional development of STEM scholars from regions that have been affected by the global economic crisis. Beneficiaries of the program, or STEM-Trekkers, are encouraged to pay it forward by volunteering to serve as technology evangelists at home. Please join our social networks on LinkedIn and FaceBook

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