For a moment there I wasn’t sure if this was the second inauguration of Barack H. Obama (the Hussein having in every case but one, during the actual swearing in, been ashamedly abbreviated to a less Koranic initial), or if somehow Karl Rove had managed to short-circuit the space-time continuum and jiggered us back to a Bush inaugural. Or worse: a disinterred Romney inaugural.
Gone, for our musical bits, was the grace of Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma or the soul of Aretha Franklin, replaced by James Taylor making sap of “America the Beautiful” (an incredible feat for a song that could resist almost any attempt to demolish it), and the bombast of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir lashing two verses from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—the two most bellicose verses of that anthem to jingoists and Christian crusaders, sung at the Washington Cathedral, let’s not forget, three days after the Nine-Eleven attacks. And 23 days before the United States loosed the fateful lightning of its terrible swift sword on the latest of its perpetual wars, the one still marching on us in Afghanistan.
“Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” we were soon to hear from the mouth of Barack H not a few minutes later. Then why those three minutes of worship—an eternity at an inaugural—to Julia Ward Howe, first horsewoman of the apocalypse, and her rewrite of a half dozen of Isaiah’s most vengeful verses?
There were other discordant notes: the presence of the two former Democratic presidents, but neither of the two former Bushes (the elder Bush may be excused: he just got out of the hospital), though Clinton was at Bush’s second inaugural. That’s not Obama’s fault: Bush the Lesser, an AWOL veteran, donned his father’s ill health for fig leaf.
Other unhappy chills, though Washington was in balmy upper 40s: there was not a degree of warmth between the president and Chief Justice John Roberts, who at least didn’t flub the oath giving this time. And at lunch in the Capitol later, even the steamed lobster or the hickory-grilled bison couldn’t warm the last spot on earth untouched by global warming: the space between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, who nevertheless had to present a flag to the president. It never fluttered. Nor did Boehner’s heart. Or ours.
The greatest discordance was between the gilded, arrogantly religious and pompous frame of the inauguration ceremony itself, and the president’s speech: one of his better ones, because it managed to mix the humble with the ambitious, the doable with what’s over and done with. This was not Mr. Nice Guy speaking. Nor, he seemed to say, will Mr. Nice Guy be back any time soon, that stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue aside.
Obama has—or had—always been a gifted speaker (and more so an orator than a writer). But his last great speech was delivered on the campaign trail in 2008, in Philadelphia, when he took on race. That was his “More Perfect Union” speech. His speeches were less than perfect after that. It’s as if he’d taken offense for being seen as a great orator. We were surprised by the soberness, the subdued, unremarkableness of his first victory speech at Chicago’s Grant Park that distant night of November 2008, mistaking his strange caution for tiredness, or strategic prudence. Maybe he didn’t want to come off looking like a Triumphant Negro on a night when, beyond Grant Park, millions of shell-shocked bigots who’d spent their lives and their ancestors’ lives swearing that this day would never come were having trouble digesting their crow. Anyway, many of us thought the anti-climactic tone of Grant Park was calculated modesty.
It wasn’t. It was the beginning of a long dusk of half-measures, underscored by the strange timidity of his first inaugural, of bending over backward to accommodate an opposition interested only in slamming it in his rear, of suppressing resolve behind rhetorical flourishes rather than using rhetoric to fuel resolve.
Here was the consummate compromiser who’d deluded himself into thinking that he could create a “post-partisan” age: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply,” he said in his first inaugural. Oh, how wrong he was.
He’d tipped his hand before inauguration day, and by then he was already half devoured by his own caution, down to the cabinet he put together: These weren’t men and women ready to remake the financial world that had just destroyed us, but to mend it as it was, while letting the millions of people who paid the price continue to pay it. As they did. The stimulus package was a half measure. Health care reform was a half measure. The Afghan surge was a half-measure. His prevarications on gay rights, on taxes, on global warming were all half-measures. He broke his promise on Guantanamo’s concentration camp. He was dismal on protecting civil liberties (if less dismal on protecting civil rights), reaffirming some of the worst impulses of the Bush years down to domestic spying, unlimited detentions and the assassination of American citizens.
We survived, but we never thrived, because he was too willing to submit and, stupidly, hope.
The turn-around, oddly enough, was not of his making. It was Joe Biden’s, when old Joe let loose that he was all for gay marriage. None of those half-measures for him. Obama had resisted that switch, assuming still, until then, that the country wasn’t quite ready. Biden taught him a lesson. Make your own resolve, don’t let it be made for you. Obama conceded (after letting Joe make it for him one last time).
And from that point on his rhetoric and his approach on all other matters changed. Gone was the timid accommodator, the appeaser, the nice guy Republicans loved him to be, because he’d always been easier to beat that way. A pre-2009 Obama returned. The Obama of the 2008 campaign. And he won. His victory speech at 2 a.m. on Nov. 7, which most of America missed, was among the best of his life: combative in victory, suggesting the war was ahead. Finally.
The he won the first battle of his new term, beating back the Republican attempt to send the nation over that illusory “fiscal cliff” and winning the first significant tax increase on the rich since 1993. His resolve doesn’t seem to have abandoned him since. The question was whether the resolve would survive inauguration day.
It has. Far from a dud, as these second inaugurals tend to be, today’s speech was bracing in its realism, and very hopeful, ironically, for having finally shed the imagery of hope for hope’s sake. It was much less of the inspirational claptrap of, say, Reagan’s second inaugural (that indoor, clubbish affair, delivered inside the Capitol, because it was very cold: Reagan was already in assisted-living mode), and more of a to-do list wrapped in the awareness of a veteran.
Two themes coursed through the speech: “we, the people” (people was mentioned 11 times, the “we, the people” formula five times) and equality (mentioned eight times): no president has made equality a centerpiece of his intentions since New Deal Democrats: “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” Joseph Stiglitz must have been smiling. The age of social Darwinism has lasted long enough (1981-2013).
And one of the lines of the day: “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. 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.”
He also, daringly, finally, took a swipe at Romney’s obscenity of the 47 percent, still gospel on the right-wing talk circuit and looking for a new champion: “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
If he’s framing the next four years into a vision (after being criticized for lacking that vision during the campaign), he’s doing it with seize-the-day assurance: “[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we,” and “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.” It was surprising to hear “climate change” make a cameo in the speech, but disappointing, once again, to hear that Guantanamo did not. It is the forgotten shame.
And here was one of my favorite lines: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” I should add that to our comment policy.
The line was followed by a brief, anxious apologia for half-measures again: “We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years…” But the lines could just as well be read as the awakening of a realist speaking to a nation that has yet get past black-and-white expectations. The adolescent years of the Obama administration may be over. It was about time.
There were a few wonderfully subtle thematic echoes, as when, for the first time ever in an inaugural speech, Obama recognized gays and lesbians in one of several exhortations to equality—that line about our journey not being complete—shortly before Richard Blanco, the first gay poet at an inaugural, recited his uneven but Whitmanesque “One Day” (Whitman, too, was gay).
And when Obama spoke of “the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal,” as “the star that guides us still,” he was as if anticipating the final lines of Blanco’s poem:
And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
That was even more hopeful than Obama’s last line, the one about carrying “into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.” The president is self-assured enough this time to embrace uncertainty, and let mere hope, that cheap drug of the gullible optimist, finally be bygone. Good for him. And us.
The following is a transcript of President Obama’s second inaugural speech:
MR. OBAMA: Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, Members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. 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. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.
For more than two hundred years, we have.
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.
But 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. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.
This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.
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 believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.
We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage. Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.
We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. 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; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.
That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.
For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction – and we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service. But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty, or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride.
They are the words of citizens, and they represent our greatest hope.
You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.
You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.
Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.
Thank you, God Bless you, and may He forever bless these United States of America.