He spoke of reducing the cost of health care and of cutting the budget deficit. He talked about preserving social-insurance programs and battling climate change. He looked to an era of sustainable energy and a continuing strong American military and diplomatic profile.
But in his second inaugural address, punctuated with repeated references to the “We the people” phrase that opens the American constitution, Barack Obama set forth the goal that will be far more difficult to achieve than any of the specifics he ticked off: national unity.
For while the president was speaking to the nation and the world, he spoke against the backdrop of the Capitol, home of the Congress whose debates and divisions made his first term a tumultuous period that forced him to win a health-care overhaul and an economic stimulus with the support of his party alone.
The president enters that second term with strong public support – not only a decisive election in November but also public-opinion polls that indicate the president has 56 per cent job approval, according to independent pollster John Zogby. That is 40 points higher than the rankings given to House Speaker John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who spent the last two years struggling to bring his caucus of regulars and tea-party insurgents into some kind of unity of their own.
This struggle – between Republicans and Democrats, between conventional Republicans and the new tea-party activists – provided the backdrop to the president’s remarks. But he looked beyond the Captiol to bigger struggles that he sought, in the one moment of a presidential term that is his alone to define, to bring to the nation’s agenda: a conflict between the past and the future, a fight for rights and freedom, a struggle to create what he called a “rising middle class.”
This was a speech that was largely derivative, with allusions to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It was a speech that spoke of eternal debates, between individualism and community, between government and personal initiative. And it was resolutely a speech that portrayed the nation, world and culture in a moment of great transformative change. In that regard, he asserted that “fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
The president’s remarks came at a remarkable juncture of the calendar, on the very day in which Americans celebrate the birth of the civil-rights leader Martin Luther King. The first black president’s address spoke of the rebels of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall – the fight for rights of, respectively, women, blacks and gays – as “our forebears,” consistent with the Obama doctrine that the struggles of outsiders to become insiders is the story of all Americans.
“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began,” he said, “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.”
This was the strongest endorsement yet by the president for same-sex marriage, and he elevated this issue to the moral plane occupied by the civil-rights movement – and of immigrants, who, he said, “still see America as a land of opportunity.”
Commentators and historians often examine speeches at moments like these for remarks that might live in the national memory. Inaugural addresses – broadcast on radio since Calvin Coolidge’s in 1925, on television since Harry Truman’s in 1949, and on the Internet since Bill Clinton’s in 1997 – often have provided them. An early guess in the age of Twitter might be this riff, which with spaces accounts for 263 characters:
“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.”
Those two sentences would occupy not one tweet of 140 characters but two. So: Two tweets for President Obama on his big day, and two cheers, too.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.