If presidents campaign in poetry and govern in prose then their second inaugural address is generally delivered in PowerPoint — a less utopian, more businesslike rollout of what they have not yet done. The first time they take the oath is a moment of promise, announced in technicolor. The second is for posterity, offered in sepia. With expectations for the future tempered by experience and lowered by familiarity after re-election, they crane their necks to history.
This time was different. US President Barack Obama’s second inauguration address was far more idealistic, strident, combative and determined than his first — and most others. If his first term was characterized by compromise, in his second he seems determined to do battle. Explicitly championing gay rights, immigration and healthcare reform, and implicitly endorsing tighter gun laws and wealth redistribution, he sought not to articulate the consensus but to fashion a new one.
His decision not to shroud matters of principle and conviction in the rhetoric of unity and bipartisanship marks a difference in tone and strategy. With his search for common ground not bearing fruit, he has shifted to the high ground.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm,” he said.
For almost every lofty sentiment, there is a caveat, of course. Obama’s record now includes everything from drone attacks to healthcare reform; the bombing of Libya to the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Those who seek to assert parallels with Martin Luther King Jr, whose birthday was celebrated on Monday, must remember that this is a president with a drones “kill list.”
His position on gay rights evolved just in time for the election and, in his first term, he deported far more people than former US president George W. Bush did in his. However, inauguration speeches — especially second ones — are crafted in paragraphs of intention that omit sub-clauses of justification, let alone calculation. And this was no different.
Circling back to the constitutional refrain “We the people” (a phrase he used five times), it was a call for collective action to enable the country to live up to its founding creed.
“For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on Earth ... 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,” he said.
As such, there were two audiences for this speech. The first was the US public. If Monday’s ceremony, with its celebrations of the trappings of democracy, marked a ritual veneration of the office of the presidency, the past four years have shown the limitations of the office. Four years that have seen the country teeter close to a fiscal cliff and almost bash its head on a debt ceiling, illustrate Obama’s naivety in believing he could simply rise above partisan divide as though it were beneath him.
The speech was an appeal to civic engagement that might goad the political class out of its dysfunction.
“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it ... We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity ... We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” he said.
On most key issues — wealth distribution, gun control, gay marriage — the public, “we the people,” is more inclined to Obama’s positions than those held by the US Congress, but have yet to feel sufficiently energized to fight for those views the way their opponents do. With his election victory behind him, Obama now understands that any legacy beyond being the first black president will hinge on his ability to bring pressure to bear on Congress from the outside.
So the second audience was Congress in general and Republicans in particular. There were scathing lines for them.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” he said.
The crowds in Washington of course were smaller than last time and, even though it was Martin Luther King Day, the historic nature of the event was more low key. Nonetheless, the energy in the crowd still, at times, came off more like a campaign rally than a state event. The romance may have gone. However, the love is still there.