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Editorial: Making history by being the better man

FILE - In this combinatifile photos Rev. MartLuther King Jr. speaks peace rally New York April 15 1967 left President

FILE - In this combination of file photos, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a peace rally in New York on April 15, 1967, left, and President Barack Obama speaks at an election night party in Chicago after winning a second term in office on Nov. 7, 2012. Inauguration Day coincides with the King holiday, marking what some say is an inextricable tie between the nation's first black president and the civil rights movement. Obama plans to incorporate the legacy of that movement into his inauguration. (AP Photo, File)

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Updated: February 22, 2013 6:20AM

Four years ago, we as a nation made history.

Now, in 2013, we’re just swearing in a president, the same guy with whom we made history, for a second term.

We’d call that progress.

Four years ago, Barack Obama was sworn in as America’s first African-American president, a landmark achievement in a nation still crippled by the original sin of slavery. An entire country, including plenty of people who had voted against him, celebrated with cheers and happy tears.

But when Obama takes the oath of office on Monday, fittingly on the holiday for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., much of the public discourse will be about less inspiring yet tremendously pressing concerns, such as the slumping economy, the war in Afghanistan and the rising cost of health care.

Critics on the right will complain that Obama has been a cookie-cutter liberal, bordering on radical, as revealed by his insistence on the Affordable Care Act and his slowness in tackling the federal deficit.

Critics on the left will lament that he has been too cautious, failing to stand up for the integrity of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security and compromising too much on taxes.

Many African Americans will complain that Obama has been a particular disappointment to them, all but running away from the traditional agenda of black empowerment, such as higher wages, affirmative action and affordable housing.

In truth, President Obama has been anything but a lefty radical. He has sought the middle ground on issue after issue, including taxes. Likewise, if he has disappointed more hard-core liberals, it is because he’s a pragmatist at heart, most interested in getting stuff done.

And while it is true Obama has not done much overtly to champion the cause of African-American advancement — on this score he has been particularly skittish — he would argue that the intent of ObamaCare and other White House initiatives has been to improve the lot of all Americans, including African Americans.

In his speech Monday, Obama will say, once again, that he stands on the shoulders of America’s civil rights heroes, beginning with King. And of course he does. The transformative work of King was in plain sight as recently as this last election, when one federal court after another, upholding the voting rights laws King fought for, struck down state statutes designed to keep blacks and other minorities from voting.

Obama has gone out of his way to be America’s president, not just black America’s president. Had he not done so, it’s unlikely he would have been re-elected.

But in the next four years, we can only hope Obama will feel emboldened to speak out more forcefully on the many race-related social woes that still beset us. We’d like to see what he can do about America’s shamefully stark racial differences in levels of poverty, unemployment, educational attainment, prison sentencing and urban violence.

In 2008, cynics dismissed Obama’s election as a fluke, a victory of symbolism over substance.

In 2012, America proved the cynics wrong. The voters, judging Obama by the content of his character — as King once dreamed we would — decided Obama was just the better man.

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