Unlike most inaugural speeches, Obama’s first one included, this one exceeded expectations. Cleverly constructed, pointed, and surprisingly political, it marked the emergence of a more confident, more combative Obama—a President who knows he is personally popular and who is increasingly willing to put that popularity on the line.
Four years ago, with the economy crashing around him, and his team preparing an emergency stimulus as he spoke, he was enveloped by crisis and stuck on the fantastical idea of restoring bipartisanship to the nation’s capital. Those hopes are long gone—they finally died in the debt-ceiling fiasco of 2011. Today, Obama is more realistic. After the reverses of his first term, he realizes that the only way to succeed in Washington is to lay down some markers and then mobilize your supporters, and the public at large, to get them enacted.
With perhaps a quarter of a million of his supporters gathered on the Mall, he spoke with more passion and energy than he did at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte. (Admittedly, that’s not saying a lot.) His speech, though it included some obligatory language about the need for Americans to come together and tackle the challenges ahead, was primarily devoted to acknowledging and celebrating the rainbow coalition that saw him safely to reëlection, and to defending its liberal agenda. For a day, at least, here was the Obama that progressives hoped to see back in 2008.
The news lede was the promise to tackle global warming, a commitment that will have surprised and delighted environmentalists. “We will respond to the threat of climate change,” the President said, “knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Historians, however, will probably point to the passage on civil rights, wherein Obama, speaking on Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s birthday, compared the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Tavern, in Greenwich Village, to the women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, in 1848, and the bloody protests in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he said, “for if we are created equal then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
For a cautious politician who took almost four years to express his support for gay marriage, this was quite a turnabout. In the wake of the November election results, it surely reflected a recognition on Obama’s part that, at least for now, history appears to be on his side. In defeating Mitt Romney by a bigger margin than expected, he became the first President since Eisenhower to take more than fifty per cent of the vote in successive elections. According to the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, fully three quarters of Americans like Obama personally, and fifty two per cent approve of his performance as President.
Like Ronald Reagan, Obama is more popular than his policies. But rather than tempering his liberalism on social issues for fear of alienating conservative voters, he increasingly recognizes it is a political plus, which he can use to rally his base, raise money, and wrong foot his opposition. When Bill Clinton and other progressive politicians of a previous generation gave speeches about civil rights, they tended to do it in front of specific audiences—at black colleges, or women’s colleges, say. But here was a Democratic President, an African-American President no less, standing on the rotunda of the Capitol and invoking Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address to support equality not just for black Americans, but for women and gays and hard-working immigrants, too.
Having shaken hands with Republican leaders on his way into the Capitol, the President didn’t once appeal to them, or even acknowledge them, during his speech. Instead, he turned Republican constitutional rhetoric on its head, repeatedly invoking the Declaration of Independence to justify tackling inequality and spending tax dollars on collectively provided government programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, interstate highways, and federal investments in research and development:
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. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.
Obama’s message was clear. If Washington, or Madison, or even Jefferson were alive today, they would be modernizing technocrats, just like him, rather than anti-government Tea Party supporters. It was a variant of an argument the President has made many times before, and to great effect, because it has the merit of being largely true. He is the reasonable one. It is the Republicans who are the extremists. Still, there was a definite change in tone. During most of his first term, Obama went to great lengths to portray himself as a non-ideological centrist, rather than a liberal. As recently as three weeks ago, on “Meet the Press,” he made the same argument, saying that he believed in what worked rather than any specific ideology. But here he was, in the eyes of the world, talking unapologetically about inequality, civil rights, and social justice.
On Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, especially, that was perfectly appropriate. It was also a departure that will create expectations for the months and years ahead.