TCF fellow Michael Cohen on Obama’s 2013 inaugural address as published in The Guardian.
Over the weekend, I wrote for the Guardian that inaugural addresses tend to be banal, platitudinous affairs with saccharine pieties to national unity – and the Barack Obama’s second inaugural was unlikely to be much different. Today, Barack Obama proved that argument quite wrong.
Rather than an empty call to national unity, Obama offered one of the most full-throated defenses of liberalism that this or any other president has delivered – and he did so in the shadow of unquenchable internecine political conflict. There was an attack on inequality:
“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
There was a loud and unabashed pushback on those who would slash social insurance programs:
“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.”
There was a call to arms on climate change – and a pointed attack on those who would deny its risk:
“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.”
And finally, there was an extraordinary defense of gay rights that linked it directly to the cause of women’s suffrage and civil rights:
“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.”
In short, this was the speech of a man who is not intent to rest on his first-term laurels, but rather, one who is inclined to use his second term to push forward an agenda that is not only bold, but unapologetically progressive. Instead of a mushy call for national unity, Obama made clear in his remarks that rather than reconcile himself to the nation’s toxic and dysfunctional politics, it is the president’s opponents who must reconcile themselves to his program.
And this was apparent in the very make-up of the inaugural ceremony, officiated by a female Puerto Rican supreme court justice, a Jewish emcee, a gay Cuban poet, a black female invocation speaker, a southern white senator, a choir from Brooklyn, and a black president: thisis America.
On a day when the nation honors one of its greatest citizens, Martin Luther King Jr, what we saw at the Capitol was the dream MLK talked about nearly five decades ago at the other end of the Mall. In short, this was not the favorite inaugural ceremony for the president’s loudest and extreme opponents.
This was not simply the political coalition that re-elected Barack Obama president, but the coming destiny of this nation. And in the shadow of that diverse and cosmopolitan image of this America’s future, Obama offered a political agenda very much in tune with that tableau. This was a very future-oriented address, with an unmistakably progressive sheen.
None of this means Obama will be successful in his second term. There is still the matter of radical House Republicans whom Obama sought quite clearly to isolate in his remarks. But however the next four years play out, what was clear is that Obama will not go down without a fight – and he will do so from the leftward side of the political spectrum.