The inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, for a second term in office is a historic occasion in ways subtle and obvious. As the first African-American to hold the nation's highest political office, he personifies an especially important milestone.
Obama took the oath of office on two Bibles: one belonging to Abraham Lincoln, the other to Martin Luther King Jr. This symbolism of sacrifice and progress over the century and a half since our Civil War is important, and highly appropriate. Obama formally announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination in Springfield, Ill., site of Abraham Lincoln's family home and tomb.
Obama's inaugural address was less impressive. Lincoln in particular, and also King, consistently worked to build more inclusive political support. Obama, by contrast, took a partisan tone, emphasizing the agenda of the Democratic Party, with no olive branch held out to the Republicans, who still control the U.S. House of Representatives.
Remarkably absent in the speech was attention to foreign policy problems, priorities or opportunities, aside from a passing reference to promoting democracy. By contrast, the 2012 Democratic National Convention emphasized strong national defense. Killing Osama bin Laden was Exhibit A.
Since World War II, American presidents generally have given sustained public attention to foreign policy. During the unusually peaceful years between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bill Clinton seemed to personify a turn toward greater emphasis on domestic policy concerns. Yet even he had to grapple with Balkan and other overseas challenges.
Here, Obama White House actions speak louder than rhetoric. The Cabinet nominations of two capable Senate veterans, John Kerry for the State Department and Chuck Hagel for Defense, are impressive. Both men have extensive foreign policy experience in government. In contrast to some of their most belligerent critics, each is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War. Each volunteered for hazardous missions.
Hagel is also a Republican, reflecting a remarkably durable but little-discussed practice among Democratic presidents. Clinton appointed Republican Sen. William Cohen of Maine to head the Pentagon. Franklin D. Roosevelt named Republicans to lead the War Department and Navy Department during World War II.
John F. Kennedy appointed Republicans or independents to virtually all the major foreign policy posts in his administration: Dean Rusk as secretary of state, C. Douglas Dillon for the treasury, Robert McNamara for defense, and McGeorge Bundy as national security adviser. JFK, elected by the narrowest of margins, had special incentive to reach out.
Bipartisanship was one of many casualties of the Vietnam War. Obama deserves significant credit for returning forcefully to that tradition in his nominations, and also for keeping capable Defense Secretary Robert Gates on from the George W. Bush administration. The precedent of Clinton's appointment of Cohen no doubt has facilitated this commendable approach.
The Obama administration also has been free of visible policy and personal infighting among foreign policy officials -- especially the secretaries of state and defense and the national security adviser -- which has often characterized Washington. The tension between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the Bush administration is a recent unfortunate example.
Obama's great continuing popularity overseas, in marked contrast to that predecessor administration, will be another foreign-policy advantage in his second term.
(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of After the Cold War.)