News Analysis: What President Obama Didn’t Say

More than once in his inaugural address President Barack Obama celebrated America’s diversity and the nation’s immigrant heritage. “We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth,” he said near the end of the speech. At another point the president talked about those, “who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.”

The president also referred to his own heritage, mentioning the “small village” in Africa where his father was born. But Mr. Obama’s speech did not contain the words “immigrant” or “immigration.” He did not say what he intends to do about the nation’s immigration system. In fact, he did not even acknowledge that in the view of many Americans, both on the left and the right, the U.S. immigration system has failed.

An inaugural address is not typically a laundry list of problems and the president’s proposals to fix them. That’s what State of the Union addresses are for. But it is worth noting that in a speech that described in stark and somber language a whole host of challenges facing the nation – the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the health care crisis, climate change – President Obama did not devote even one line to the need to reform immigration laws. To find a discussion of his administration’s immigration policies you need to go the White House web site.

Maybe that’s because compared to the collapsing World economy, the troubled immigration system seems less important than it once did. A survey released this week by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that even among Latinos, immigration reform has taken a back seat to fixing the economy. But another reason could be that Mr. Obama understands how dangerous talking about immigration can be, even if you have lots of political capital to spend.

Following Mr. Obama’s speech, the benediction by Reverend Joseph Lowery included these words:

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.

The idea of “brown” being allowed to “stick around,” is the closest anyone came during the inauguration ceremony to calling for more compassionate immigration laws.

Hours after he spoke, Rev. Lowery, an icon of the civil rights movement who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., was being attacked on conservative talk radio for making “racist” comments, and putting a stain on a remarkable and profoundly emotional day in our nation’s history.

AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Executive Producer, is a journalist with more than 40 years experience as a public radio program host and producer of documentaries, podcasts and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for the Feet in 2 Worlds project.