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Editorial: Acting in our time

Though he began his second inaugural address quoting from the Declaration of Independence and invoking “unalienable rights,” President Barack Obama urged the nation Monday to take inspiration from ventures never envisioned by the founders.

The best way to honor our nation’s founders, the president suggested, is to use the resources of a great republic to improve the common good of a free and independent people in ways only citizens today can.

While the president’s 20-minute address was laced with references to our past, we applaud his decision to rally us for the better tomorrows we might build together.

Minutes after taking the oath of office, the president noted that it echoes words spoken by all in the federal government who promise to serve God and country. Their pledge is to the American system, the president noted, not to political party.

And that vow, he suggested, demands that political differences be overcome so that leaders in Washington, D.C., can respond wisely and swiftly to “an uncertain future.”

Coming off a first term in which President Obama appeared at times both to lead and waffle, we heard promises Monday that he will fight for changes that benefit all people in this country, and even around the globe. Importantly, the president flagged climate change as a problem that needs immediate attention, giving that issue the prominence it has long deserved and not often received.

The president called upon Americans to continue to invent ways for government to achieve pressing goals. Among them: educating our children and future workers and continuing to ensure that old age in America is not a time of penury. Pointedly, the president observed that “a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play” and that American revolutionaries did not overthrow one tyranny to see another imposed by a ruling economic class.

To be sure, rather than see our founding documents as static blueprints, effective American leaders have for more than two centuries invented new and better responses to emergencies they faced. “We made ourselves anew,” the president said Monday, “and vowed to move forward together.” Time and again, Americans have looked ahead, not back, to rise to the challenges of their times.

As President Obama said, “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.”

“We the people,” the president said, cementing with oratory his faith in our founding creed.

And we the people can act, the president said, without surrendering skepticism of central authority or letting go of “our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility (that) are constants in our character.”

“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time,” the president said, “but it does require us to act in our time. ... We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

We believe that now is just another moment, after many in difficult times, in which our political leaders, guided by shared principle rather than faction, must feel the call to work for the common good.

The president’s message is important, timely and, we hope, one that can move us all forward.

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