When Barack Obama takes office January 20, he will inherit crises on a scale no president has faced in living memory. America has gotten itself into a very deep hole, not just in finance and the economy but on the battlefields of the Middle East, in the oceans and dirty skies, on factory floors, in hospital emergency rooms, on decaying roads and bridges and — especially — in the opinions of the rest of the world. Digging ourselves out will require bold leadership from the new president, a great deal of sacrifice on the part of ordinary Americans, and a willingness to entertain a new kind of politics.
All that has become cliché by now. Not until December 17, however, did Americans get their first, concrete lesson in what this might mean. That was the day that the Rev. Rick Warren was selected to deliver the invocation at Obama’s inauguration.
Warren is one of this nation’s most influential evangelical Christian leaders, a best-selling author, television personality and pastor of the fourth-largest church in America, Saddleback Church in Southern California. Adamant about the need for evangelicals to care more about justice and charity, Warren invited Obama to participate in an AIDS summit at Saddleback in 2006. But the man who often preaches in Hawaiian-style shirts is also an outspoken opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage, lumping the latter together with polygamy and pederasty. His influence helped to pass Proposition 8 on the California ballot this past November, stripping gays of the right to marry.
Not surprisingly, Warren’s scheduled appearance at the inauguration has drawn the ire of liberals and gay-rights proponents, the heart of Obama’s political base. For gays, the decision to honor a man who disparages their very identity can hardly be seen as anything but a profound betrayal. At best, some progressives are saying, it might be called smart politics, and they don’t mean it as a compliment.
But smart politics is just what is needed now in Washington. Obama was elected to govern, to get things done in the realm of stone and steel. This isn’t a time for symbols. The task ahead is to clean up the monumental mess left by the outgoing administration. That wouldn’t be easy under the best of circumstances, and Obama’s circumstances aren’t the best. Despite the Bush team’s epic failure, nearly half the electorate voted for what amounted to more of the same.
More of the same would have spelled disaster, but failure to achieve change isn’t much better. The nation needs an economy that won’t collapse again, one that measures success in mouths fed. It needs to retool at every level for cleaner, sustainable energy. It needs a new foreign policy that seeks dialogue before confrontation.
To get the job done, Obama will need more than an administration backed by half the populace. He needs a nation united behind him. He needs, ultimately, a new governing majority.
That is where Rick Warren comes in. Warren speaks for a vast constituency that once voted Democratic because of bread-and-butter issues, but turned rightward a generation ago, alienated by abortion, gay rights and the broader culture war. After three decades of Republican misrule and free-market fundamentalism, some appear ready to come back. Warren talks about putting issues of social justice back on the national agenda — feeding the poor, healing the sick, saving the planet. Part of his agenda is repugnant to progressives; part of the progressive agenda is repugnant to him. That shouldn’t mean there’s no room for cooperation on vital issues.
Democrats used to know how to build those sorts of alliances. Franklin Roosevelt gave a Supreme Court seat to Hugo Black, a onetime Ku Klux Klan member, and still managed to create the New Deal, defeat the Nazis and set up the first federal civil rights agency of the 20th century, the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Lyndon Johnson worked closely with Southern racists like Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, his lifelong mentor, and yet he still managed to pass landmark civil rights legislation and launch a war on poverty.
What Democrats understood in those days — and what Obama seems to understand now — is that in order to advance the rights of minorities, you must first build a majority. You can’t help the powerless if you don’t have power. An inauguration isn’t a political convention, but a time to speak to all Americans.