As second inaugural speeches go, over-ambition can prove self-defeating. Witness the Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s forceful entry into his third term in 1941, later tainted by battles with the Congress tightly controlled by his own Democratic party. More recently, George W. Bush Jr. advanced the partial privatization of Social Security in his second inaugural speech in 2005, when the Republicans still held both houses in the Congress. It failed miserably. Republicans lost both Senate and House of Representatives majorities at the ballot box in 2006 and Bush Jr. later referred to his Social Security defeat as the greatest failure from the eight years he served in the White House.
There is no doubt that Obama was aware of such second inaugural “curse” as well as the fact that Republicans still retain the majority in the House. Yet he nevertheless decided to be bold in addressing the nation when taking his second oath of office earlier this week. As many observers have pointed out, his speech might have lacked specific memorable lines, like Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” from 1961 or Reagan’s “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” twenty years later. However, it will probably be remembered as the most lucid and passionate arguments for progressive policies in the US recent history. Even European Social Democrats should take note.
Inaugural speeches are usually attempts to set the tone of the incoming Administration, rather than outline a detailed policy agenda. This is why it should not come as a surprise that Obama spoke of principles more than of substance. And there are two in-between-the-lines not so subtle punches that he served to the Republicans.
First, despite some words about the need for unity, Obama clearly told the Congress what Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post neatly summarized as: “I’m the president, deal with it.” In practical terms this might cost him some standing among those expecting a more conciliatory tone, yet Obama believes he now has the upper hand. He won the elections and Republicans should take this into account.
Second, throughout the speech Obama continuously referred to “We the people”, “Our journey” and “You and I”. In light of the historically low Congress approval ratings and fully aware of the immense capability the Democratic campaigning machine, he decided to turn to American people. He thus not only symbolically brought himself closer to the suffering of many, but also appealed for direct support of his policy agenda, especially on hotly contested issues like gun control, as well as tax and entitlements reform. These issue are most likely to get stuck in the highly polarized Congress, unless pressuring of its members grows in strength.
In terms of substance, Obama’s speech can clearly be characterized as an unapologetic defense of government, the middle class and liberal principles. In doing so, he “directly confronted conservative philosophy” as Peter Baker from The New York Times noted in his immediate reaction following the delivery of the speech. There are three core points that the President wants to define his second term.
First, Obama buried Reagan’s mantra by turning it around: government must be part of the solution. It is there to help and support the progress of America and its citizens, especially those at the bottom of the social ladder. To use his words: 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 resolve that a great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.” Obama did little to contain his frustration with the Republicans’ obstructionism and Tea Party’s aggressive attacks on the Federal Government. No surprise then that Charles Krauthammer, a leading conservative commentator, described the speech as an “ode to big government.” Faced with important decisions on tax and entitlement reform, only time will tell whether Obama will succeed to turn words into policy. These will clearly be among the most contentious issues on his plate.
Second, echoing his campaign tone, Obama reaffirmed the commitment to a more just and equitable America. He appealed for humility and solidarity and launched a remarkably persuasive defense of existing social programs: “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.” In a direct rebuke to earlier statements of his Republican opponents Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, he went further: “They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Obama signaled his readiness to improve the way social programs function, yet he decisively defended their existence and purpose.
Third, Obama called for the principle of equality to become reality in today’s America. “We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still,” and that “while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.” In terms of equality of people of different race, homosexuals and women, America still has to walk a long way before it becomes reality. Unemployment among Afro-Americans and Latinos is nearly twice as high as that among America’s white population. Similarly, these two groups disproportionately suffer from poverty. Homosexual couples are still denied a series of rights granted to their heterosexual counterparts and many women still receive a lower pay than men in comparable positions. Obama signaled his commitment to reverse these trends.
He also chose to focus on domestic issues, a tendency that became clear during the campaign. For many in Europe, such absence of foreign policy substance comes as a disappointment. That should not be the case. The commitment to peaceful engagement and global alliances, as well as, somewhat surprising, the emphasis on the need to address climate change, are very positive indications that the next Administration will remain selective, yet constructive. That in itself is positive news. The alternative in the form of a Republican administration inspired by the growing isolationism on the American right would undoubtedly have been a less promising option.
With an eye to 2014 congressional elections and the Democrats’ hopes to retake the House, Obama outlined a principled course of action, as much as a campaign strategy that might grant liberals control of the Congress. Four bitter years of political confrontations have turned him into a more shrewd politician, yet he remains true to his vision of a more egalitarian American society. However, more than an expression of partisanship, his inaugural speech was tactical positioning. He has placed his bets. In case he wins, Obama’s second mandate might well prove historically important and all those that hope to see a more equal and just America will have reasons to rejoice. In case he loses, Obama’s aspirations to leave behind a legacy of change will remain unfulfilled and America will fail to reverse ever greater social stratification and political polarization.
(Published on BlogActiv on 25. January 2013)